One of Philadelphia Zoning’s very first clients hired an accountant to do the zoning for his tattoo shop. As you can imagine, that didn’t turn out too well for our client — or for the accountant (which is why the tattoo artist became a Philly Zoning client).
Zoning is a highly misconstrued world here in Philly. There can be many complications, misunderstandings and miscommunications; so much so that some investors and developers will avoid zoning processes for a project, even if it means a higher return on their investment. (For example: not turning the use of a property into a multi-family and just building a by-right single family.) Either because the process is convoluted or because they just can’t stand the thought of having to meet with a certain community organization again (but we’ll save that for another day).
That all being said, I want to provide some tips for whom to trust with different aspects of your zoning projects, whether “by-right” or for a project that requires a special exception or variance from the Zoning Board of Adjustment. There are many moving parts, and in our experience it is best if each party stays in their own lane.
The zoning attorney is often looked to to handle all aspects of a Zoning case for projects that require an attorney (LLC’s are required by law to be represented by a Zoning attorney).
A zoning attorney’s primary role should be to focus on the strategy of the case; comparing it to past cases, diving into any and all hardships that can exist, etc. as well as presenting the case to the ZBA (Zoning Board of Adjustment and the RCO (Registered Community Organization).
In addition to the strategy and presentation of the case, a great zoning attorney tracks what the ZBA / RCO’s are requiring and like to see (Don’t even try to acquire a multifamily variance from the ZBA without showing a proper trash plan…) These things should always be relayed to the other involved parties in the case; i.e. the architect, etc.
Pro tip: It’s completely unnecessary to pay your attorney $300/hour to sit down at l&i and handle the expediting. Leave that to the….
Let’s set the record straight: An expediter is not a magician. I repeat: An expediter is not a magician. An expediter can’t “just push this through” for you, but they can move it along swiftly and with minimal back and forth if they know what they are doing. Some characteristics that make a great expediter include:
- A great expediter will have the knowledge, experience, and framework to ensure your project progresses in a timely manner.
- The expediter should be able to properly navigate the city’s systems. They should know the required documentation that must be submitted the first time around so your project can avoid any unnecessary additional information requests from l&i.
- A great expediter never has the same run-in with l&I twice. If there was a kickback on plans for a previous project, or they left something out on an application las time, they will make sure those run-ins are not repeated on future projects.
- An expediter should be able to articulate and communicate what the city is looking for to you and anyone else involved in the process; i.e. your design professional… not just relay information verbatim.
Keep an eye out for a post coming about ‘What makes a great Expediter”.
Design Professional (Architect/Engineer)
There are some architect and engineering firms that take care of the expediting portion of projects. This is not the greatest idea (unless they of course have competent in-house expediters).
In our experience, design professionals deliver plans on-time less than 10% of the time. It does not make them bad design professionals; it means effective time and project management are lacking. This tells us that the last thing an architect or engineer should be doing is waiting down at l&i to file applications, pick up permits, expedite, etc.
However, it is a good idea for an engineer or architect to go to l&i to meet with the plans examiner if there are misunderstandings about the design professional’s plans. Visiting l&i should be a last resort as most situations van be rectified with the examiner by phone or via email.
I have experienced situations where clients come to me with a zoning project half-done or half-a**ed because of a General Contractor attempting to run point on the zoning process.
There are GC’s out there who tell the client they will ‘take care of the zoning for them’… But what is happening behind the scenes is this: The contractor himself is not acquiring your zoning permits (for projects that require a variance), seeing as how you need a lawyer to represent any business applying for a zoning permit. The GC, in this case, is probably hiring an attorney on your behalf to acquire the zoning permits. That is a HUGE issue.
First off, as the owner of the property, you should be clued-in as to everyone who is working on your project at all times because it’s your butt that is on the line. In the case of a GC hiring an attorney, this is an “outside counsel” agreement which you need to be okaying and signing-off on.
(Because Philadelphia Zoning is not a law firm, we contract with competent zoning attorneys to handle the hearings in front of the ZBA. We have an Outside Counsel Contract with each client and with those attorneys to allow for this.)
In addition to the outside counsel agreement, there are other agreements that anyone pulling permits for a client on their behalf is required to supply to the client.
Not to mention, if the contractor is hiring an attorney on your behalf, there is a hidden cost in your contract with him and you have no idea what that number actually is because it is lumped into the total.
If you hire a contractor to acquire your by-right zoning permit, three are issues to consider here. We have experienced situations where a contractor told the client they were pulling the necessary (zoning) permits, but don’t actually do it because they just want to get paid to get the job moving. That results in you receiving a violation, having to pay a penalty, and possibly even having your project shut down. If you do hire a GC to get your permits, MAKE THEM SHOW YOU THE PERMITS BEFORE STARTING WORK. Nonetheless, we still don’t recommend a GC to handle your zoning permitting.
In our experience, zoning projects progress effectively and efficiently when each party stays in their lane and focuses on executing their part of the project as well as possible. Build your power team by including the right people for each job. And please…leave your accountant out of it. 😉
Philadelphia Zoning was created to save you time, money, and headaches when it comes to all-things zoning and permitting in Philadelphia.
Note: We provide content, tips, and advice based on our deep involvement in the zoning world in Philly. We have seen all types of crappy situations for clients, and we want to help you avoid those situations. Obviously, there will be exceptions to every rule sketched in this blog, and some projects will be simpler than others.