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.
The Zoning/Use Variance Process
Okay: we’ve made it this far! You’re ready to open a new business in a residential area. You have all the paperwork for the sale; you just need permission from the Zoning Board of Adjustment to use this residential property as a commercial property: you need a Use Variance.
What happens next?
Part 1: Apply for a Permit
You need the permit; you apply for it. Simple as that: there’s a form on the City’s website; you fill it out and drop it off at the Department of Licenses and Inspections.
Well, kind of: You need to include a check for the application fee with that application. How much is the fee? Well, it varies; but in this case, $100.
Okay, you’re ready!
… still maybe: are you changing the shape of the building? For instance, are you building a new sign over the sidewalk? How about renovating the interior of the property? What about building an addition for your business?
Any of these changes might require different permits after your Zoning and Use Permit is issued. They might also require a review by a different department. For example: remember that sign you wanted to build over the sidewalk? It needs to be approved by the Streets Department, because it hangs over the public right of way. And it will require a Sign Permit and a Building Permit. And for all of that, you’ll need detailed architectural and engineering plans.
But for the sake of this piece, let’s say your project is simple: Let’s say you just want to run a small office out of a former house: No changes to the building; just a simple request to use the building differently than the zoning district allows.
Okay; we can move on.
Part 2: Get Denied for Your Use Permit!
Yeah, this is kind of weird, but it’s how it works: Even though you know your application will get rejected, you have to apply for the permit. You can’t just apply directly for special permission to use your building in a different way than the zoning district allows; you have to apply as if you think you’ll just get a permit for asking nicely.
Why does this happen? Take it up with your city councilman: in the meantime, you’re here now: the City of Philadelphia issues you a Refusal. A Refusal is the City form that says, you know, “You can’t do this.”
Part 3: Appeal the Decision
What you can do is appeal that Refusal! You’ll need the appeal form, the appeal fee (what, you thought this was going to be free?), and the Refusal itself. Mail it (no email here) to the appropriate City office, which in this case is the Zoning Board of Adjustment.
Cool? Okay, now it gets interesting.
Part 4: Do You Know the People in Your Neighborhood?
The City will set you up on a blind date with the Registered Community Organizations in the area of your property. What is a Registered Community Organization? It’s a group of people living in a certain neighborhood who band together to advocate for that community to the City of Philadelphia. I mean, that’s what it’s supposed to be: it might also be a lot less organized than that. But you don’t get to decide which group you present to: you, by law, have to present your zoning case to the group the City of Philly picks for you.
Before you do this, you must also create a flier that says, “Hey, we’re having a meeting!” and get it to all the neighbors; either by mail or by hand. Again: no email; the City of Philadelphia doesn’t believe in it.
Once the neighborhood knows the meeting is going to happen, you stand before the group and explain your project. If they like it, you get a letter of support or “non-opposition.” If they don’t, you can try your luck with the Zoning Board of Adjustment; but it’s obviously much easier to just get a letter of support.
Part 5: The Zoning Board of Adjustment
You’ve made it to the end! All you have to do is spend a few minutes talking to Philadelphia’s zoning review board to ask them permission to do the thing you want to do!
Of course, it’s not that simple: You must provide pictures, a floorplan of some kind (professionally made or just drawn up yourself; depending on the nature of the project), the deed, a certificate showing that you’ve paid your taxes, and any other relevant documents to the ZBA. And if the entity that owns the building isn’t you, you need a signed Lease Agreement, too.
Oh, wait: when I said you could stand before the ZBA, I forgot to tell you to bring your lawyer, maybe: Are you representing just yourself, or your business? Any company must be represented by a lawyer. And it helps if the lawyer knows Title 14 of the Philadelphia Code pretty well.
Part 6: PAY PHILLY SOME COLD HARD CASH
Listen, if you have the money for a lawyer and all these application and appeal fees, the City figures you have some money left over for the permit itself. After the ZBA approves your appeal, you take their Notice of Decision down to the right office and then collect your permits, for the price of… well, listen: each one, like a maddeningly expensive snowflake, is different: you might be paying $100 or $500 or more. It depends on what you asked for, in what type of building.
OR, Part 1: Let Philadelphia Zoning Do All of This
This is what Philadelphia Zoning was built for: we take this arcane, opaque process and make it simple. We tell you what documents you need to give us, and when, and we take care of the rest. You just have to show up to the RCO meeting and the ZBA hearing. Then we mail you your permits at the end of the whole thing.
Not only that, but we can give you a decent idea, based on our experience, of whether or not your case will pass in the first place. (Do you want to build a large office building on E. Passyunk? Save your money and pick another spot.)
The choice is yours, but we also like to think it’s obvious.