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Commercial Zoning Laws and Variances

If you're starting your own business, you might not have considered local zoning laws. Municipal zoning codes are among the few local laws that affect small and home-based businesses more than state laws. Local zoning requirements affect where and how you can operate your business. Even if your business fully complies with state laws, zoning laws may restrict where you can open.

What are zoning restrictions? How do they affect your business? Read on to learn more about zoning and what you can do if your business does not comply with local zoning laws.

Types of Zoning Laws

Zoning laws divide a community into areas, or "zones," for specific uses. These zones help to protect residents and limit hazardous activities and types of industry. Areas within zones may have subdivisions subject to other laws or restrictions.

  • Residential zoning is restricted to housing. Residential zones may be divided into single-family areas and multifamily or rental areas. Residential areas may have restrictive covenants, such as deed restrictions, that protect them from rezoning.
  • Commercial zones contain businesses, retail stores, offices, and strip malls. Zoning laws affect signage, building height, advertising, and parking spaces.
  • Industrial zones are divided into "light" industrial, such as auto shops, and "heavy" industrial, such as refineries. Industrial zone regulations affect clear space around the property, hazardous materials, and liability.

Businesses and Zoning Regulations

No matter what type of business you have, zoning regulations affect your business operations. Commercial zoning laws may prohibit certain kinds of businesses from operating in proximity. For example, a zoning law may state that you cannot open a bar across the street from a school. Other requirements relate to city planning. You won't have any place to set up a small business in a recreational zone, such as a park or green belt.

Some zoning laws are legacies of development. For instance, a zoning district may have been set up decades ago when developers built the tract. In the years since, as shopping centers sprang up on the perimeter of the tract, the original residential covenants remained. Now you want to start a business in a building near the shopping center, but according to the deed restriction, you're in a residential zone. What can you do?

Zoning Variances and Conditional Use

A zoning variance is a special permit letting you operate a business despite the zoning ordinance prohibiting the use. You'll need a business law attorney to help you apply for a variance. You must present your request to the local zoning board, chamber of commerce, or possibly both. There are a number of ways to request a variance.

  • Community support: Business activities are dependent on one another. Speak with other business owners, and explain your proposed business and business plan. They may be more supportive if it appears your business will draw additional revenue for the area.
  • Do your homework: Your business plan should include an estimate of increased traffic to the specific area, added parking, proposed signage, and impact on nearby businesses.
  • Ask about previous variances or waivers in the area: If another similar business received a variance, mention that in your own application.
  • Request a conditional use permit: If the local planning board is reluctant to grant a variance, request a conditional use permit. This allows the use of the property for a short time to see if the impact will be greater or less than anticipated.

Commercial Use in Residential Areas

A recent challenge to zoning laws has been the increase in home businesses. Commercial property cannot usually be used for residential use, nor vice-versa. Whether a home-based business improperly uses a residential property is unclear.

Most residential zoning laws involve the impact of businesses on property values. Putting a supermarket in the middle of a quiet suburb would seriously affect the surrounding real estate value — something property owners would rather avoid. However, running a web design business in your garage should not affect nearby homeowners.

Some home-based businesses have been closed for violating zoning laws, primarily because they created a nuisance or parking problems. However, your best course of action is to check with a zoning attorney in your area to confirm the zoning laws before getting your business license.

Appealing a Commercial Zoning Decision in Court

If it is impossible to reach an agreement with the zoning board, you may be able to appeal the decision in court. Going to court, however, is expensive and time-consuming. It can take several years to receive a court ruling, and there's no guarantee that the court will decide in your favor.

You may want to try an appeal if you have a long-term lease. If your options are non-conforming use or closing down your business, you should try for a variance. If you have met the requirements for a variance, and the local government is refusing to issue your permit without cause, you should get legal assistance immediately to begin your appeal.

Legal Help for Zoning Issues

Excited entrepreneurs encounter zoning problems all the time. If you're one of them, consider getting professional legal help. An experienced business and commercial attorney can help you determine your best course of action in dealing with zoning boards and planning commissions.

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