How to Get a Permit Without Getting Surprised Part 1: Zoning

Zoning is a form giver. It is incumbent for both owner and architect to be familiar with all the different ways these will impact any given project, whether it be new construction or renovation before design has begun, or even better, before a property is purchased. 

Zoning Ordinances:
On the whole, people know that zoning will generally tell you what building uses are permitted (or prohibited) on any given lot. Not as well-known are these impacts of zoning:

  • The usable area of the lot for your building. It is not uncommon to find that after complying with all the zoning elements, only a percentage of the lot can actually be built on. 
  • The location of the building on the site. Zoning will generally describe whether the building must be set on, or setback, from the street. It will also direct how much space needs to be left along the sides and rear.
  • The area of the lot that must be dedicated to parking, where the parking must go, and how it must be accessed. Older suburban zoning categories often carry an enormous parking requirement for a building. 
  • The area of the lot which must be landscaped. Front yard requirements, landscape buffers, parking lot screening and shading, dumpster and loading dock screening, and tree preservation all have an impact on your site.
  • What the boundaries of your site must be like. Separate from the building, you may be required to fence and landscape the perimeter of your property, an expense not often planned at the beginning.
  • Which materials you may use, and which materials you may not use.
  • The amount of windows (fenestration) required.

Zoning Work Arounds:
Here are some good tools for building a facility that doesn’t easily fit in the allowed zoning:

  • Planned Developments are a mechanism by which the quality and integrity of your project may be used to offset some of the ways you would otherwise not fully comply. The caution with a planned development is that it may not be flexible enough for future phases. 
  • The Zoning Board of Adjustment is a citizen board that evaluates requests for exceptions and formally approves or denies them. This board can often be a good resource, but it will be heavily influenced by your neighbors and their perception of what you are building. A good neighbor campaign before the zoning change is requested can go a long way toward a successful outcome.
  • Administrative changes are the easiest relief for zoning, though they typically will only address minor items. In this case, the senior planning official makes his or her own determination as to the suitability of your request. 


The project pictured is a small patio bar. Early in the planning process, we requested and received several administrative approvals. The most noticeable of these is the use of the board and batten siding, made of a cement board product, such as Hardieboard. While the cement board was allowed in this industrial zoned area, it was not allowed under an additional overlay clause due to its proximity to downtown. The zoning official agreed that the use of the cement board was appropriate to the neighborhood and the scale of the building. 

Why Zoning Anyway?

In the oldest of towns, citizens’ homes were their workplace. With the dawn of the Industrial Revolution came the desire to separate large industrial uses from residential areas. Regardless of its problems, at root zoning is designed to protect your investment in the building by holding the properties in your area to a single standard. It may seem difficult to work with, but it works for you the rest of the time.