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Zoning Permits

A Zoning Permit is required for all types of projects, structures, and businesses.

Philadelphia’s zoning code is a dense document that clarifies where and what you can and cannot build / operate just about anything in the city.  Any construction, renovation, addition, structure, new business, or even housing rental might (and probably does) require a zoning or use registration permit.


To acquire this permit, your project might (and probably does) need special approval from the Zoning Board of Adjustment, as well as an assortment of other City Organizations and groups, including: Historical Commission, Art Commission, a Registered Community Organization, and many more.


It is important to note that if your project is operating under a business entity (LLC, etc.) you need a lawyer to represent you – by law. Philadelphia Zoning is not a law firm, but we work with the best and most appropriate zoning lawyers around the city for your specific project.


Before we dive in, let’s clarify the different terms that are often used interchangeably to describe these projects:


A Permit (zoning permit, use permit, use registration permit) is the piece of paper that is issued once your project has been granted, which permits you to use a space, build a thing, amend a structure, etc. If you are here because you need a sign permit or a building permit, you can click through.


A Variance (zoning variance, use variance, dimensional variance) is what you are applying for if your project falls outside of the permissions of the zoning code. You are asking to vary from the code in terms of the size of your project, the use of your space, or the current registered zoning classification.


A Special Exception is when you are seeking an approval that will allow you to do something that is not allowed within the code (like open a tattoo shop).


“Zoning” and “Use” are used interchangeably but are essentially the same thing in the context of the processes. Zoning refers to a specific zoning classification and the use refers to the actual use of the space. For example:


Each type of zoning project has its own zoning requirements that further dictate the issuing of your permit. If your project complies with the zoning code, your zoning permit can be issued over the counter, or “by-right” (usually on the same day you apply for the permit).  However if the application for your zoning project does not adhere to the zoning code, a refusal or a referral will be issued, and you will need to acquire a “special exception” or “variance” from the Zoning Board of Adjustment (ZBA).


A zoning permit is required for a multitude of projects. Common projects that require a zoning permit include:


  • Additions to existing structures
  • New construction
  • Demolition of partial or entire structure
  • Accessory structures for residential uses
  • Fences
  • When a new use is proposed at the property  (ex: from a single family to a triplex)
  • Decks
  • Sign installations
  • Parking
  • Lot subdivisions or combinations


As stated already, many zoning permits are initially “REF– USED” because they are outside the parameters of the zoning code. (Other projects can receive a “REFERRAL” rather than a refusal. Both are essentially the same thing because it means the project requires special approval from the zoning board, but a referral implies that it is responding to an application that corresponds to a zoning violation or a special exception.) Some examples of projects that would be refused include: 


  • You are building a roof deck via access from a pilot house but your pilot house exceeds 90 sqft. Because it is over 90 square feet, you need a variance from the ZBA.


  • You are an urban farmer and want to house chickens on your property for fresh eggs. To do this, you need a special exception for housing livestock.  (Yes we are speaking from experience ;))


  • You just acquired a rental property that is zoned RSA-5 (single family) but it makes sense to turn it into a Triplex. This is not an over-the-counter change of use. You must acquire a variance from the ZBA.


  • You are looking to open a tattoo shop. Tattoo shops require a “special exception” variance.


  • You want to rent-out a basement in a property as a unit. All basement dwelling units require a variance from the ZBA.


  • You are or have added an addition to the third floor rear of a property in an area where both neighboring properties do not have a third floor rear. This is outside of the zoning code and requires a variance.


Because the Philadelphia Zoning Code is so dense, there are ridiculous amounts of combinations of things that can warrant a refusal for your project (deem your project outside of natural compliance with the zoning code.)  When a project receives a “Refusal” you are required to receive the go-ahead from the Zoning board, the local Registered Community Organization (RCO), and possibly some other organizations.


The process that encompass these approvals is dense; but luckily for you, Philadelphia Zoning has spent the time learning best practices to navigate these processes in a way that create a higher success rate in a more efficient timespan.


The bad news is that there are no guarantees when it comes to getting your projected granted. The good news is as long as you are not trying to open a Centaur strip club on the ground-floor of a two-story structure with an operating Ministry on the second floor, Philadelphia Zoning will be able to help you 😉

We permit you to contact us so we can help you!

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