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Zoning

Definition: The division of a city or county by legislative regulations into areas (zones), specifying the uses allowable for the property in these areas

Although zoning regulations affect the location of every type of business, it's especially critical to home based businesses. That's because strict zoning laws could prevent you from operating your business from your home. So before you decide to set up shop in your home, find out what the zoning ordinances are for your area. Go to your city or town hall and ask for a copy of its zoning regulations. You don't have to explain why you want to see them--it's your right to have access. Look for the section on home based businesses and carefully read it. If your business is in violation of zoning regulations, you could be fined or closed down if your city or county found out you were operating out of your home.

Even if your business isn't home based, it's still a good idea to find out what the zoning ordinances are for the place you're planning to locate your business. Then, once you know how your area's zoned, you can get a good idea of whether your planned business is permitted or prohibited. Whatever your conclusion is, consult an attorney who'll be able to interpret the fine points of the ordinance. There's often a substantial difference between what an ordinance says and the way it is enforced.

If you locate your business in a structure previously used for commercial purposes, in most cases, zoning regulations won't not be a problem. If you're constructing a new facility, acquiring an existing building for a different purpose than its original use, or undertaking an expensive remodeling, carefully check the local building and zoning codes. If zoning regulations do not allow operation of the type of business you wish to open, you may file for a zoning variance, a conditional-use permit or a zone change.

A variance or conditional-use permit grants you the privilege (conditionally) of operating a business on land not zoned for that purpose. The filing fee varies greatly from a few hundred to several thousand dollars, depending on the municipality or jurisdiction, and it may take several weeks before you get a decision. A zone change, on the other hand, amounts to a permanent change in the way a particular area is zoned, and therefore in the way it will be used long into the future. It involves a lengthy procedure--usually several months--of filing a petition with the city planning commission, issuing notice, presenting your case at public hearings, and finally getting the city council or other governing body to make a decision.

In some cases, any change in land use, whether permanent (by zone change) or temporary (by variance or conditional-use permit) requires environmental clearance. Local planning or zoning departments can tell you whether your project is exempt from the law or whether you should seek a negative declaration from its regulations. If your project will displace residents, generate a lot of traffic, or affect natural habitat, some municipalities will require you to prepare an environmental-impact report. This can be a costly and time-consuming procedure for which you'll need expert help.

If your request for a zoning variance or change is approved, many restrictions still apply. In addition to meeting local building codes, you will probably be required to observe minimum setbacks at the front, side, and rear of the structure; maximum floor space in relation to land area; maximum heights; minimum provisions for parking; and other factors. You need to get detailed, specific information from your city or town government, since policies vary from place to place.

Essentially, zoning ensures that the community's land uses are properly located in relation to one another; that adequate space is available for each type of development; that the density of development in each area is in proper proportion to the development of streets, schools, recreational areas, and utility systems; and that the development is sufficiently open to permit light, air, and privacy for persons living and working within the area.