A piece of land usually comes with a few rules attached. These 'rules' dictate what you can do with the land - and a cohesive term for these rules is known as Zoning Laws.

Zoning laws were first introduced in the early 20th century. Buildings in New York City that were developed without any formal laws resulted in certain ones towering over others and depriving them of natural light. This led to the city introducing zoning laws that have since been a playbook for many other cities to follow suit.

Today, zoning laws or ordinances help dictate how the land is used and what operations or activities can be permitted on certain land. It even dictates what can be placed where such as where the driveway can be, fences, signs, and even pools.

Now if you’re a business looking to make changes to how you utilize a specific area of land. These changes need to be approved by the local authorities, and this approval comes in the form of a Zoning Permit.

What is a Zoning Permit

A zoning permit is a document that is issued by a local authority or a local (municipal) government, which allows a parcel of land to be used for a prescribed use. In more general terms, zoning has to do with the legislative processes of separating land into zones for different purposes, and zoning laws regulate the land and take control over the permission behind what structures are and are not allowed to be built on the land.

To understand what makes a zoning permit different permit think of it this way: the zoning code concerns how a specific land projects fits within a certain community overall, whereas the building permit has more to do with making sure that structures are constructed to fit the necessary standards of safety and use.

Why is Zoning Important?

Zoning is important because zoning laws determine the type of structures than can or cannot be built. Zoning laws also control whether an existing property can or cannot be repurposed, or even replaced with something completely new. You may not be thinking about taking part of any of the mentioned situations; however, you may have a neighbor who is currently considering one of these phenomena, and their decision could be detrimental to your own property. Understanding the laws in regards to obtaining a zoning permit is important because it will help you to understand whether or not the change that you wish to make is possible, as well as whether or not you will be able to modify or even prevent a certain change that you wish to undergo.

What Is The Purpose Of Zoning?

Zoning laws are there in order to ensure the “health, safety and general welfare of the public.” What an individual or a company chooses to do with a certain space of land should in no way negatively impact the surrounding population. Ideally, acts of governance should always prioritize the best interest of a residential population. Zoning permits are important because they grant individuals the rights to action concerning land structures, only if they ensure the protection of safety and health of the surrounding people and the general welfare related to land use.

To achieve this purpose, zoning laws regulate the impacts of land use that may not be in the best interests of the people, generally including things such as:

  • Protecting the value and enjoyment of properties by separating incompatible land uses and minimizing their potentially negative impacts upon each other.
  • Protecting the value and enjoyment of properties by allowing a property its most appropriate land use given its location and surrounding uses.
  • Providing for the orderly development of a city, including making provisions for land uses in the best interests of its citizens.
  • Providing adequate public infrastructure, e.g., roads, water and sewers

In essence, zoning has all to do with the compatibility of uses. Governments of cities want, both the good of the residents, as well as industrial uses for economic growth. But how can both residential users and industrial users be content with a certain zoning law? This is the tricky part when it comes to zoning, zoning laws, and granting zoning permits, and this is what is precisely meant by “compatibility of uses.” In order to ensure this “compatibility of the uses” is fulfilled, zoning laws give communities a set of road rules, together with road maps. It takes into account the way that a city could potentially grow, and then goes on to separate the city into particular districts that limited the uses that are allowed within each. Zoning authorities later go on to create a set of regulation laws considering the following:

  • The way that each district can and cannot be used (in terms of agriculture, commerce, and residential purposes).
  • The types of building structures that can or cannot be constructed within every district (taking into account the configuration, the structure size, and the number of stories).
  •  The locations of the structures.
  • The measures that landowners must take into account in order to comply with neighbor needs (such as flood control and buffers).

Remember, even though zoning laws exist, they are not laws that are necessarily set in stone, as inevitable changes can occur. Exceptions can be made to zoning laws, and granting zoning permits in the case of special circumstances.

Zoning Permits: The Comprehensive Plan

The first step that goes into granting a zoning permit is the comprehensive plan. The comprehensive plan is a road map that a city creates in order to arrive at its desired economic, social and physical development. Generally, comprehensive plans will be long-term strategies that take the next 20 years at least into account.

The comprehensive plan will typically act as a guide for the development of zoning regulations, that decide the types of structures that are permitted, the uses that are permitted, the structure design, the exact placement of these potential structures. A comprehensive plan is the foundation for legally binding instruments like the zoning ordinance, which we will further discuss in our later section.

How Is A Comprehensive Plan Created

A comprehensive plan is a collaborative effort that involves the city staff, the city's planning commission, a city’s government, the public, and of course, planning professionals. In certain circumstances, the comprehensive plan may even take neighboring communities into account.

The first step is considering a city’s potential evolution, and the way in which it wants to grow.

Zoning permits consist of text, maps, pictures together with words. Maps show where infrastructure shows as sewers and streets should go, and controls the different land uses. Cities will typically keep a copy of this plan on the official website of the city. You could also make call City Hall and they will transfer you to the planning department, if you are not able to retrieve the plan online.

Zoning Ordinance

Zoning ordinance in essence holds all of the “how-to” related details of comprehensive plans. Zoning ordinance is the town’s local set of rules and regulations in regards to land uses and land structures that are specifically authorized within local authority borders (these being the town, the city, and the county).

How is Zoning Ordinance Established?

The creation and the establishment of zoning ordinance is very similar to the creation and establishment of the comprehensive plan discussed above. First, the planning consultants will create a zoning ordinance draft. Second, the public’s input will be recorded and considered. Third, consultants will reform the draft, and finally, the ordinance draft will be given for review to the authoritative local planning commission. This is an on-going process, as the public’s input is generated once more, and then the commission makes the necessary recommendations to the council, until the final zoning ordinance is finally established.

What separated zoning ordinance from the comprehensive plan, is that zoning ordinance is legally binding, and provides the precise rules that will dictate the way in which land may be used. Zoning ordinance must always comply with the common law; however, it is important to remember that just like most laws, zoning ordinance can be amended for special circumstances.

Zoning ordinance with typically take three main things into account. The first factor is the zoning district section that defines the various types of use districts and the regulation of their uses. These can include residential areas and commercial areas,for example. The second is the performance standards section. What this does, is it describes the regulations that apply to all districts within the area respectively. These regulations include fencing, noise, signage standards, and parking, for example. The third is the administrative section. This puts procedures for requests in order, under zoning ordinance. An example of such us a conditional use permit (CUP).

You can find zoning ordinance information on a city’s official website, the same way that we mentioned you are able to find a comprehensive plan on a city’s website as well. If you are unable to find what you need online, you can always call City Hall directly, and they will assist you with the necessary information to obtain whatever it is that you are looking for in regards to zoning.

Who Grants Zoning Permits?

So who exactly is in charge of granting someone a zoning permit? The authorities in charge of providing the public with necessary zoning permits are the city staff, the planning commission, the Board of Zoning Adjustment (BZA) and finally, the local government. We will talk about each, and the role that they play in granting zoning permits.

City Staff

A zoning permit will first pass through the city staff. The city staff does not have the direct authoritative power to approve or decline a given application. Instead, the city staff is in charge of using their expertise and knowledge concerning zoning, to give their opinion in regards to the application, to the other three authoritative bodies. The city staff looks over a zoning application, and makes sure that everything on it is in unison with and complies with zoning ordinance regulations. The city staff then goes on to make amendments on the application. All four authoritative bodies work together, as the city staff then passes on the application to the planning commission, together with advice and recommendations.

Planning Commission

Most cities will have a planning commission, which consists of city residents who are directly chosen by the local government body. These individuals will usually come from  backgrounds with knowledge and expertise that proves to be valuable when it comes to making decisions concerning land use. Such individuals will typically hold engineering, real estate, or legal licenses; however, this is not a necessary requirement. The way that a planning commission works is by managing and taking part in public hearings, writing down evidence and recording the hearing itself. The planning commission then goes on to give advice and recommendations for the application, and either approve it with necessary revisions, or deny the application to the local governmental body. The planning commission will usually be the first authoritative body to adjust both comprehensive plans and zoning ordinances.

Board of Zoning Adjustment (BZA)

The Board of Zoning Adjustment (BZA) typically works the way that a planning commission does. The Board of Zoning Adjustmentwill only make recommendations to the local government, and decisions that are made may or may not be subject to appeal. The Board of Zoning Adjustment is typically in charge of two main things. First, they review variance applications, and second, they review appeals concerning rezoning denials. Let us get into more detail concerning how the city council works to review applications, below.

Local Government

The local government, also referred to as the city council, is the last and ultimate authoritative body to make a decision concerning a zoning application.The city council specifically, however, will not hold legislative authority, and is usually known to be work more as a legislative act. 

Steps to Obtaining a Zoning Permit

In order to understand zoning permits completely, it is important to understand zoning code, the work that goes behind creating zoning laws, and the authoritative bodies that are in charge of regulating zoning applications. Understanding what a comprehensive plan and zoning ordinance is critical to fully grasping the importance of zoning, and what makes a zoning permit different from a building permit. Essentially, zoning takes the well-being of the people into account, in regards to how a building structure and its potential uses will or will not affect the entirety of a community. 

Applying for a zoning permit is essentially the first step in carrying out any development on land.

The local authority provides these permits after you submit relevant documents indicating the change you’d like to make to a given area.

This application process will involve many documents, fees, and even attendance in local zoning meetings before a decision is made on your zoning permit.

Let’s dive into the details on what exactly constitutes a zoning permit process:

1. It Starts By Reviewing The Existing Zoning Laws In Place

What are your local zoning laws for the given area you’d like to develop?

Start by understanding what are the local zoning laws in place and who has jurisdiction over the land you’d like to develop. 

It's common to find information on local zoning laws online, including the necessary step-by-step guides to applying for a zoning permit and a checklist for supporting documents you'll need.

If your local town or city doesn’t offer this information online, then the next step is to head over to city hall and speak to someone. 

Get professional help if needed

If you’re handling a large project or are just unsure about how to navigate all the complexity related to obtaining a zoning permit, then get professional advice. Find a lawyer that specializes in zoning regulations to advise you on what documents you’ll need and specific forms you’ll have to complete. At My Site Plan, we offer site plan services for those that don’t have time to do one themselves or lack the skill set. Our consulting firm can help ease the process by helping you whip up the documents you need to gain a zoning permit quickly and effortlessly.

Contact local authorities for advice

Reaching out to local public works departments and talking with officials can go a great deal in gaining insight into the zoning permit process and nuances that may apply to your specific development plan.

Some public works officials may even review your zoning permit application form before you submit it. They can even advise you on certain changes that may help you gain approval faster. For complex plans, it’s best to set up an appointment with the Director of Public Works.

Use this to understand the exact zoning permit you’d like to apply for

By gathering all this information on the existing regulations in place, you can now determine what’s the zoning permit and specific permissions you’ll need to apply for. Depending on your development plans, there will be different approvals you’ll need that vary depending on the degree of changes you’ll need.

2. Gather Relevant Documents

This is where you’ll start to complete the application form and gather supporting documents to apply for a zoning permit. 

You’ll have to provide site plans, blueprints, and other documents that help authorities understand what you’re planning on building and how this affects the surrounding area.

You’ll not only have to show the changes you’d like to make but also how the existing area is currently zoned. This can be done by finding existing maps and ground plans from your city’s zoning office. 

You can source some of these documents for free; others will require some fees, and third party help to develop. Here are some standard documents you’ll need to gather or have drawn up:

  • Local site maps
  • Site plans
  • Landscape plans
  • Architecture elevations
  • Instrument survey of the site and surroundings
  • Owner permissions if the land isn’t owned by you
  • Feasibility study report

3. Apply For A Zoning Permit

With all the documents and application form completed, it’s time to apply for the zoning permit. 

Be sure to submit the documents in the right place and to the right department. This is usually the main clerk at city hall or to a zoning director/officer. Always try and gather some form of receipt verifying your application was collected by someone in case it goes missing later. 

Bring extra copies of your application, and have one with you. Some towns require multiple copies to be provided upon submission of your application.

A fee is also necessary to obtain a zoning permit and varies by town. The fee can vary depending on the type of zoning permit you’re applying for and range from as low as ten dollars to a couple hundred.

Usually, after an initial review of your zoning permit, a local hearing is scheduled that allows the public to hear your zoning details and ask any questions. This is a public hearing that’s mandatory for you to attend and you must check in with the authorities on if you’ve been scheduled to attend a hearing. Hearings aren’t always done, and sometimes your zoning permit is approved without one. For larger projects with a higher significant impact, however, a hearing is almost always carried out.

Zoning permits may sound like a long process, but if you're adequately prepared, they can be quite seamless! We hope this 101 has demonstrated it's not as complicated as it may seem and you're well informed to begin the process.




Question Answer
What are the common reasons for zoning permit rejections? Applications may be rejected for non-compliance with local zoning ordinances, proposing non-conforming structures, or insufficient documentation, including inadequate environmental assessments.
Can a zoning decision be appealed and how is this process carried out? Yes, zoning decisions can be appealed. This involves filing an appeal with a Board of Zoning Appeals or similar body, providing reasons based on legal errors or misinterpretations of zoning laws by decision-makers.
How do zoning laws interact with historical preservation efforts? Zoning laws designate specific zones as historical districts where certain building modifications are restricted, helping preserve architectural integrity and historical significance.
What impact do zoning laws have on property values? Zoning laws can significantly impact property values. They may increase values by protecting areas from incompatible uses or decrease them if restrictive regulations limit development opportunities.
How often are zoning laws updated, and what prompts these changes? Zoning laws are updated as needed, often in response to community development trends, environmental concerns, or legal challenges that highlight the need for modifications in regulations.