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Commercial Zoning

Zoning laws affect businesses in ways you might not expect. Business owners sometimes hear an area is not zoned for their type of business when planning an expansion or buying property. Home-based businesses sometimes encounter zoning issues when they grow and become small businesses.

This article addresses what zoning laws are and how they affect your business.

Types of Zoning

Local governments use zoning to protect a community's health and safety and regulate growth. Zoning laws -- also called zoning ordinances and land use regulations -- control the use of property. Commercial zoning laws control the activities a business may conduct in a particular area. This includes the category of business that can occupy the zoned area. Zoning regulations can create uniformity in commercial buildings so facades and signage have a standard appearance.

Commercial zoning districts affect where business activities may operate. Local governments categorize zoning within a city, municipality, or county, such as:

  • Residential: Usually divided into single-family or multifamily use
  • Commercial: An area allowed for commercial activities like retail stores and offices
  • Industrial: Property used for manufacturing purposes
  • Agricultural: An area set aside for farming activities
  • Recreational: Land used for recreational activities

The city creates zoning areas for the convenience and safety of the community. Zoning ordinances prevent single-family residential zones from surrounding heavy industrial use zones. This protects the residents from soot or chemicals from the industrial plants.

Zoning codes also encourage best practices for commercial use. Shopping complexes must be at a reasonable distance from residential areas. No homeowner wants grocery stores every other block, but they don't want to drive 50 miles to shop. Zoning ordinances create commercial and residential use zones to evenly space developments.

Business Restrictions and Requirements

Zoning requirements exercise control over commercial operations. Startup businesses should check with the planning commission and zoning board before leasing property. Your zoning restrictions may surprise you. Among other things, zoning laws regulate:

  • Noise Levels: Noise restrictions particularly apply before and after certain hours. Bars, nightclubs, and movie theaters with late showings must be aware of these restrictions.
  • Parking Requirements: Commercial zones may require specific numbers of parking spaces based on expected traffic. This will not include any employees you may have.
  • Signage: Some cities restrict the size and placement of signs and displays. Carmel, California, prohibits neon signs or artificial flowers in window displays.
  • External Appearance: Most buildings in a strip mall must be the same color, and the signs and letters must have the same general appearance. Zoning laws can require all buildings in a shopping center to resemble one another. They must conform to the same color palette and aesthetic.

Municipalities create commercial zoning laws to enhance property values and encourage economic development. They're not intended to foster creativity in architectural design.

Avoid Commercial Zoning Trouble

A previous occupant using the property for a specific activity doesn't mean a new occupant can use the property for the same purpose. Consider the following when buying or leasing commercial property:

  • Be Cautious When Signing a Lease: Investigate zoning laws before signing a lease. If a change in zoning is pending, include a contingency clause in the lease that only makes the lease binding upon the zoning's approval.
  • Be Aware of a Previous Nonconforming Use: If a zoning law results in existing business operations being out of compliance, the current occupant can continue operating. Nonconforming use permits are granted in these situations. Any new occupant must obey the zoning laws.
  • Research Whether the Previous Tenant Had a Variance: A variance is a special permit that allows the occupant to use the property in a way contrary to zoning. A variance only applies to the specific business granted the exception.
  • Check if Approval Depends on a Conditional Use: A zoning variance may be conditional on certain use requirements, such as providing a certain number of off-street parking spaces. Ensure you can meet the conditions before signing any lease.
  • Are Signs Limited: Many zoning laws regulate business signs. Laws often control external signs' size, placement, appearance, and height.

Variances and Conditional Use

Even if your intended business doesn't meet the commercial zoning requirements, all is not lost. Variances are available if you can convince the zoning board your business should receive one.

Many commercial zoning regulations have little to do with business operations. They keep commercial areas and residential areas separate. Or they separate certain types of businesses, such as schools and strip clubs. If you believe zoning laws should not exclude your business, you should apply for a variance or conditional use permit.

On the permit application, mention any previous variance or nonconforming use by other owners. This helps prove the property can support nonzoned businesses. If you have the support of other property owners, mention that as well.

Get Legal Help With Your Zoning Needs

Ensure you understand your area's zoning laws before signing a commercial lease. Your business location and zoning laws must go together. Failing to follow zoning and other regulations could sink your business enterprise before it launches. Contact a local business attorney with commercial zoning experience who can help you chart a course to success.

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