Zoning 101, Part 2: Zoning Permits, Use Permits, and Variances

Zoning 101, Part 2: Zoning Permits, Use Permits, and Variances

Zoning in Philadelphia is a strange enterprise.  The ideas behind it are simple, and the people working the desks downtown are generally helpful and clear.  But in practice, it can be quite confusing.  This little overview probably won’t make the strange details of zoning any less confusing, but it may give you a clearer picture of the overall structure of zoning complaints, requests, and applications in Philadelphia.


This is Part 2.  Check out Part 1 in this series here.



Types of Zoning Permits


In Philadelphia, there are two types of zoning permits:  a Zoning Permit, and a Use Permit.


(I know: it’s already kind of ridiculous.  Check out the City’s reference guide here.)


A Zoning Permit, capital-Z, is a permit that authorizes construction and property dimensions.  It’s the piece of paper that allows you to start construction on a house, or to create an addition to the house, or to divide a big lot into two smaller lots.  The Zoning Permit is also needed to put up a large sign, or to demolish a building.


A Use Permit lets you use a building for a specific purpose.  If you purchased a building and want to use it as a restaurant, the Use Permit will let you do that.  (You’ll also need a lot of other permits and/or licenses so that the City knows the restaurant is safe and clean; but you’ll start with a Use Permit.)



By-Right Zoning and Variances


Let’s stick with that last example:  You bought a building, and want to use it as a restaurant.


If you’re in a zoning district that allows businesses to operate, then you’ll apply for a Use Permit.  Provided the building is up to code, you’ll get your Use Permit and be able to operate as a restaurant.  Again, you’ll have to work with the City’s health department and some other inspecting agencies to actually open this restaurant:  The Use Permit just says that the property may be used as a restaurant.


Okay: it’s not the easiest thing in the world to get one of those permits (hint: to make it easier, call Philadelphia Zoning).  But it’s a simple enough idea:  Get a building; get authorization to use the building how you’d like.


Now comes the tricky part:  What if you want to use your new building as a restaurant, and the zoning district doesn’t allow restaurants?


Now things get interesting.  As I explained in Part 1, the City actually has a process whereby residents can ask to break the zoning rules.  Or, if you want to think about it more gently: residents can ask for their property to be an exception to the rules.


These exceptions are called “variances.”  A Zoning Variance might be issued if you want to build your restaurant larger or smaller than the zoning code allows.  A Use Variance might be issued if you want to operate a restaurant in a zoning district that doesn’t allow restaurants.


Again: Zoning Permits affect construction or property size.  Use Permits allow you to, you know, use the property or building in a certain way.



Where Philadelphia Zoning Comes In


Our company is designed to help people pursue their dreams in Philadelphia.  The zoning districts don’t always account for those dreams.  We are happy to obtain by-right permits for you, but our specialty is variances: asking the City of Philadelphia for exceptions to the rules.


If you want to start that restaurant, and you know the perfect place for it, we can help you ask permission from the City.  Instead of worrying about a mountain of paperwork, unclear legal fees, and the creation of engineering plans; you just give us a call and he take the case from your description of the restaurant to your appearance before the Zoning Board of Adjustment.


Now, how does that process work?  I’ll take you through the steps of a typical zoning case in our next post.


Philadelphia Zoning is a private company whose mission is to:
EDUCATE about the esoteric and complex systems of permitting that affect us all;
EMPOWER the business owner, homeowner, and investor to make educated choices about their project;
EXECUTE dynamic permitting processes with ease, efficiency, and effectiveness.

Philly Zoning Team
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