Zoning Process [Part II]

Next Steps, Nuts, and Bolts 

In the first part of our Zoning article, we gave an overview of the process. Some of the considerations include whether your project will affect land use, whether it’s new construction or a rehabilitation project. Another tip we covered was design and the importance of having an experienced architect. Below are your steps in the approval process that are more detailed.

STEP 1:  ZONING APPLICATION; What information do I need?

The application will require the following information

  1. Current use of property
  2. Proposed use of property
  3. Dimensions and heights of existing and proposed construction
  4. Signs – description, plot plans, photos of existing signs
  5. Plot plan for any new construction or additions
  6. Owner’s name, address and phone number
  7. Architect’s name, address and phone number
  8. Signature(s) of applicant(s)

WHEN WILL I GET A DECISION? Review time is fifteen business days for residential projects, and twenty business days for commercial projects. A letter will be emailed when a decision is made. Some types of applications can receive an “accelerated review” for an additional fee.


  1. Approval –your application has been approved because it conforms to the Philadelphia Zoning Code.
  2. Refusal – your application has been denied because your project does not conform with the Zoning Code. You may 1) appeal this decision to the Zoning Board of Adjustment, 2) revise your plans to fit within the Zoning Code requirements, or 3) abandon your application.

Refused! What if what I want to do is not permitted?

If your request for a zoning permit is “Refused”, you can appeal to the Zoning Board of Adjustment (the “ZBA”). We’ll go into more detail on this process in Part III of this series. In short, the ZBA may sometimes allow exceptions to zoning code limitations. Upon hearing the appeal, the ZBA may offer relief in one of three forms:

Variance – provided where the use of the property (or the dimensions of what you want to build) is normally prohibited, but enforcing the code would result in “unnecessary hardship” to the property. To obtain a variance, the applicant must prove that 1) the grant of the variance is in the spirit of the zoning code and overall City plan and will not adversely affect public health, welfare or safety; 2) the conditions are unique to the property; and 3) the applicant did not create the need for the variance. Variances run with the land, not with the owner, so the ZBA takes its decisions seriously, knowing that they will have long-term effects.

The Experience of Your Architect

Here’s a perfect example for when experience comes in handy when hiring an architect. In Zoning; Part I, we discussed how your architect should, initially, determine what is allowed “by right” as opposed to what will require a variance. This is key because your project may not need a variance after all, but rather a simple zoning permit with a more compliant design tweak.

Certificates – either a “special use exception” or “conditional use” is issued with approval of the ZBA. The applicant is not required to prove “unnecessary hardship,” but must persuade the ZBA that the use is a certified use and satisfies the specific requirements of the ordinance.

Special Use Permit – typically triggered by a referral for parking uses or other uses that may have negative impacts on the neighbors, including nightclubs, animal-centered uses, and take-out restaurants. The applicant has the burden of proving that the use falls within the special use permit categories and must produce the additional required materials.

Stay Tuned for our last part of our Zoning coverage when we talk about…


Project Roundup: Week of 10/19/15
Things We Do: Historical Commission
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