How to Verify the Zoning of a Property

How to Verify the Zoning of a Property

We constantly receive messages asking us to look into the zoning on a property, confirm the zoning, verify the zoning, etc.


Checking the zoning on a property is not always straightforward, but it can be done with the right tools. We will give you the tools to draw your own conclusions about the zoning on whatever property you may be concerned about. But if you don’t feel like it, you can try reaching out to the city here, heading down to Licenses and Inspections at 1401 JFK Blvd. to sit with someone, or you can cut right to the chase and pull the city’s certification here.


We’ll walk you through the steps you can take to figure out the zoning yourself. 


Figure out the Base Zoning Classification


You likely already know the answer to this and are trying to understand the actual legal use, despite what the base zoning classification is. However, it’s still important to understand the base zoning and how it plays into it all.


Use the Atlas website to check the base zoning. Atlas will also allow you to check into variances or appeals for the property. You can even look into violations on the property, ownership, etc.


We will use one of our projects as an example. The base zoning on this property is RSA-5 (Residential Single Family attached). However, we obtained a use variance (appeal) for it to operate as a tattoo studio.



As you can see, this property is zoned RSA-5– residential single family attached.


Check Licenses & Inspections for ‘Zoning Permit Documents’


Like we said, we obtained a variance through the appeals process to operate this space as a tattoo studio. The “Zoning” Tab will show you any appeals for the property, as you can see here.



Important note: When variances are granted, it never changes the base district of a property/on the city websites, it will always read this way no matter how it legally operates.  Meaning, if you are looking to see if there is a different verified use than the base zoning, you need to do more digging and assessing.  Just because it says it is zoned single family, does not mean there is not a legal use for a multifamily, a coffee shop, or some other operation. 


NOTE: Unless it says GRANTED, then the variance/appeal was not established. Also, just because it says granted does not mean that use is still allowable. Uses can lapse and be cancelled if a property sits vacant for a certain amount of time, if the actual use isn’t what the variance was approved for, or if there was a special provision tied to the variance being granted.


If there is a use permit on the property for some other type of use, it will show in the “Licenses & Inspections” section titled “Permits”.   As you can see here, there is a use permit for the variance that was granted for the tattoo shop. It shows as COMPLETED.



Sometimes, deciphering the database to see if a property has an active variance can be confusing, especially the more applications, permits, etc. that are tied to a property.  If you want a concrete answer without doing the crazy digging, dot-connecting, and guesswork, you will have to get the City Certification. It costs $100, but there’s really no other document that will specifically tell you exactly the way the property can be used, without a doubt.


It’s usually in your best interest to bite the bullet and verify with the city. Just because the zoning archive shows that there may have been a legal variance at one point, the variance can be discontinued if the property sits vacant for a certain amount of time. Also, some people revert the use to its original use, which also deems the variance inapplicable. There are so many gray areas and unknowns that your best bet to avoid future financial hardships and even bigger headaches, is to just verify what is going on. Yes, it may be a bit inconvenient and annoying to go down to municipal services to verify the use, or to purchase the city certification, but you are likely saving yourself a world of burden way bigger than this one in your future.



Zoning Overlays


Zoning overlays are additional layers that have been added to the code to enforce something.  Generally how this affects the property is it means although you may determine that something may be a by-right use, the overlay may require you to go through the zoning special approval process. Essentially, an overlay is another level of protection, and depending on your project, the overlay may affect you and your ability to execute your project. The atlas tool shows overlays, as in the picture below. You can click the overlay and it will take you to the section of the code that details the overlay to see if it pertains to your project.



We hope this helps!

Philly Zoning Team
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