If you haven’t read our first blog on zoning, go check it out now. It covers the basics of what zoning is and the purpose behind it, which will give you some necessary context for this week’s blog on how zoning affects businesses.

How does zoning affect where certain businesses can open?

Zoning is established and modified by your local government and basically determines what types of businesses can open where. When you first start looking for business locations with your commercial real estate broker, you’re going to want to check zoning codes in your ideal location to ensure that your business use is permitted.

Most zoning is designed by permitted use type, which might be retail, industrial, residential, etc. If your business is not within the permitted use for the zone, the code may provide for your use as a ‘special exception’ use. While it is possible to obtain these, you’ll likely need to go through a hearing with public input and meet certain additional criteria as stipulated by the local government.

When you look up the zoning, there are a few different situations that you may find:

  •       You look up the property and the zoning code. When you check the zoning code, you’ll see the permitted uses listed in alphabetical order and your use is permitted.
  •       Your use is not permitted under the zoning category for that property, but it is permitted in other zoning categories
  •       Your use isn’t listed under the zoning code for that property or under any other zoning category available because it simply isn’t enumerated; perhaps it is a brand-new use. You may very well be able to use that property for your business, but you’ll need to go through a process to do so.
  •       Your use isn’t allowed in that zone OR it’s technically allowed but some part of your business goes against the code. For example, you want to open a veterinarian office, which is allowed, but not if you’re boarding dogs overnight. If you perform surgery on dogs, even if you can open the office, you’re likely to run into an issue and may want to consider opening somewhere else.

Can a zoning change affect a business that’s already established?

Believe it or not, the answer here is “yes,” though it really depends on the situation. For example, let’s say that there a business is in a zone that permits it to operate. The land that the business is on is a three-acre parcel with a 10,000 square foot building on it, which gives the owner lots of room to expand.

As long as the zoning allows the use, the business owner can go in and apply for the permits to double the size of the building or build a new one, as long as they satisfy all the development requirements (such as parking, setbacks from adjoining properties, height of the building, etc.).

Now, let’s say the zoning gets changed to a use that no longer permits the type of business that’s on this land parcel. The business then becomes a nonconforming use. While the business can’t get kicked off the property, they can no longer make it significantly larger, either.

If the community is looking to get rid of a use in a specific neighborhood (for example adult entertainment uses), this type of zoning change can result in a long play to get rid of the current business use.

Another instance where zoning changes could come into play is if the property is rezoned and you want to sell your business that is no longer a permitted use. While you can sell that business under that use, if you were to close the business, the next owner may not be able to reopen it.

For example, let’s say you own a gas station and the zoning changes to no longer permit a gas station. You can continue to operate that gas station since you’re grandfathered in. However, if you close it and a specified amount of time goes by before somebody else purchases it and wants to reopen a gas station with the same building, same pumps, etc., the new zoning law may apply, causing the new owner to lose use status.

When do zoning changes occur and where?

The timeframe for zoning changes is different everywhere. Baltimore County has a fairly regular process, though. Every four years, they go through a comprehensive rezoning process. Anybody can request a rezoning of any property as long as they’re willing to pay the fee.

Different jurisdictions have different criteria for zoning changes. In Baltimore County, in the first year after the comprehensive rezoning, the only way to get a zoning change is to prove that somebody made a mistake, which is highly unlikely. In the three years after that, you would have to prove an error or changing conditions. During the comprehensive rezoning, you just have to convince the folks making the decisions that the proposed zoning category makes sense.

Do you have questions about zoning or want to know more about a specific property? TD&A (Trout Daniel & Associates) can help. Give Art Putzel a call at 443-921-9326 or reach out via email at aputzel@troutdaniel.com

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