As part of a multi-part series on the most common types of permits, this entry addresses the 6 considerations of zoning applications.
Click here to read the first part where I explain these 6 considerations in detail.
This week’s news story is right out of my back yard here in Bucks County Pennsylvania where we read about a developer who has filed for a zoning variance to allow him to build a 12 family building on a 1 acre lot. The Bucks Local News Story tells that he is expected to have an uphill battle as local residents prepare to attend the hearing to oppose his application.
That’s right! Zoning applications can be opposed by the public. Now, lets learn what a zoning application actually does and how we can avoid having our applications denied.
Zoning approvals are required anytime you build a new building or if you are making an addition to an existing building.
Zoning approvals are meant to regulate land use, population density, and safety. Zoning regulations govern setbacks (how far away from a certain point you can build) for side yards, front yards, and rear yards.
Zoning also restricts building heights. Physical space regulations like these create separations between residences to prevent the spread of fires and pull front yards back to make streetscapes safer for pedestrian and vehicle travel.
Another function of zoning regulations is restrictions on impervious land cover and landscaping requirements. These restrictions and regulations help control storm water run-off to prevent flooding and limit contamination of drinking water.
Every jurisdiction has its own zoning code. The jurisdictional authority responsible for zoning regulations is typically the town or the county of your job site.
The people responsible for enacting zoning regulations are the town council. Town councils are made up of local leaders of the community that are elected into office. The members of the Town council can come from any walk of life and may or may not have design and construction experience. Regardless, the legislations enacted by town councils are typically based on precedence, community demands, or expert recommendations.
Zoning regulations are considered to be local laws and ordinances by which every local residence is bound. Variances can only be granted by the zoning board which may be a separate body from the town council. Similar to a town council, a zoning board is made up of local residents from the community. Generally zoning board members do have some level of industry experience but they are not elected officials.
Violations of zoning regulations may result in fines issued by the town and may limit a homeowners right to sell or mortgage a property.
Enforcement of zoning regulations is the responsibility of a zoning officer. The zoning officer is an appointed individual who sometimes does double duty as a building official. The zoning officer reviews zoning applications to confirm compliance with zoning, performs site visits to confirm compliance in the field, and responds to community complaints. The zoning official has no authority to grant variances (only the zoning board can grant variances) and is duty bound to enforce the zoning regulations of the town equally on all properties in the Town.
The process of filling a zoning application varies greatly from one jurisdiction to another but the basic principles will be the same. This filing is the first application you will file. It typically happens early on, before the details design is complete. Read my article on phases of work to learn what are phases of work for a typical construction project.
The first step in preparing for a zoning application is to plan your exhibits. An exhibit (typically a drawing that shows what you plan to build) can be as simple as a single line drawing showing a scaled representation of your project. Exhibits may also be as detailed as an artist’s rendering of your planned development. The best way to determine the level of detail your exhibits will need is to consult with a local Architect who has filed a zoning application in the Town before.
Another resource that may help you plan your exhibits is the zoning officer. Zoning officers can be hard to get a hold of (because they are spread thin), but they are generally very helpful.
Once you have determined what exhibits you need, you should verify whether you require a variance. A variance is an exception granted to the property allowing the development to be constructed without meeting specific regulations. Variances are granted when a property owner can show that strict enforcement of a regulation would limit an owners right to full enjoyment of their property. You will also need to show that the exception would not adversely impact others.
The next step is to complete the forms required by the Town. You will need to visit your Town’s Zoning or planning office to request these forms. Many Towns offer forms online. The forms generally include detailed instructions for how to complete the forms and where to send your forms and exhibits.
Be aware that if you file for variance, you may be required to present your reasons for the request before the zoning board. This may require professional support such as an Architect or a Lawyer. In most cases, if you don’t require a variance and your project is in full compliance, you wont be required to present to the board.
The time involved in zoning approvals can be quite substantial. Board hearings can take several weeks to schedule and you may be required to attend multiple times.
Zoning applications are typically filed by the Owner with support from the Architect. It can be difficult to anticipate the amount of effort and support needed. As such, Architects may seek to exclude this work from fixed price quotations and revert to hourly rates instead.
If your exhibits require renderings or engineering such as a storm drainage plans the Architect may bring in sub-consultants to help develop the exhibits.
The Architect will charge a fee to develop the exhibits. It is also common for an Architect to propose an hourly rate for work related to zoning. If you absolutely must have a fixed price you will need to find a local Architect that is familiar with the town and you will need to define the scope of the Architect’s work very clearly.
Depending on the scope of your project you may also incur fees from other design team members such as civil engineers or landscape Architects. Check with your Architect in advance to be sure.
You will also pay a fee to the Zoning Office. Jurisdictional fees cover the cost of reviews. These fees tend to be minimal but the bigger your project the larger your fee.
So now you should better understand zoning applications and the reasons why they are required. Next week, we will discuss plan approvals and talk about an unfortunate fine levied against a business owner in Minnesota who failed to file for plan approval.
So have you ever filed a zoning application? Or have you ever opposed a zoning application in your town? Tell me your stories.
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