Zoning Laws for Small Business: What You Need to Know

Cody Cromwell
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#1 – What Zone Your Building Is In

Your building’s zone can tell you a lot about the regulations that apply in your particular area. Typically, each zone has a certain minimum number of seats or square footage. The range of permissible hours of operation differs greatly from zone to zone.

Often, local zoning regulations are based on the ministry level they belong to. If you are planning to open a small business, you should check how strict the regulations are for your zone. The more time you take to research and analyze your area, the better prepared you’ll be.

#2 – Whether Your Business Is Allowed In This Zone

To run your business legally, you need to understand what zoning laws are. – Zoning laws are public ordinances established by local jurisdictions. They define where different types of commercial and residential activities are allowed.

These Ordinances Indicate

— the general usage of land – residential, office or industrial zones.

— When a Business Can Be Open to the Public

For example, most towns and cities allow residential, retail shopping, office, gas stations, liquor stores, restaurants, and supermarkets in built up areas. However, most areas don’t allow commercial or industrial activities in residential areas.

#3 – What the Building Requirements Are

When a property owner wants to subdivide an existing five-acre lot into sixteen 1-acre lots, they have to follow the zoning rules for the subdivision. Do they have to get a variance? When you have several lots within a larger parcel of land, the zoning rules (usually shown on a plat) will let you know what building requirements are. If you have existing homes on the land and you want to build additional homes in the area, the existing home on each lot must comply with the local zoning requirements for that lot.

Usually, a building on one lot that extends onto the property line is allowed, provided that it does not dominate the other properties in the area. A private mailbox enclosure, fences, and small outbuildings can also be created without variances as long as they do not interfere with the privacy of the neighbors or block sightlines in an unsafe way that could be hazardous to traffic.

Note that your parcel of land might not be entirely contiguous. For instance, if part of your property is on a corner lot and has a corner lot across the street, you do not have to have a house on all four corners of your property. You can have the home built along the street that faces the corner lot, not along the two streets that do not face it.

Building Codes

Codes are the legislative standards of planning and design that help to keep the community safe, orderly and comfortable.

In the United States, the main focus of building codes is on residential construction and fire safety. In the commercial construction arena, these codes dictate the minimum amount of floorspace that the structure must have, the types of load bearing walls that can be used, and the maximum number of stories that are allowed.

©© PaulDotGoss / iStock / Thinkstock

There are two types of codes: the building code and the fire code. ©© Tomer Neuberg / iStock / Thinkstock

The building code is a list of specifications that are needed to achieve the use and safety of the building. The fire code is a set of rules for designing and constructing a safe building by preventing the spread of fire and smoke.

Different jurisdictions can have different building codes. When a building is built in a certain state, the state law supersedes the national code.

Building codes differ from county to county. A building must be approved by the selected codes in that county. Insurance agencies are allowed access to the codes for different building parts.

Americans With Disabilities Act

What does this mean for your business?

Any small business owner should be aware of the new federal laws in place that affect your company. In fact, some businesses may not even be aware that these laws exist! A few years ago, a major cash advance company was sued by the ADA for having inadequate bathrooms for wheelchair access.

Small businesses can now be certifiably –accessible” for people in wheelchairs. It is expected that they will be one of the first buildings to meet new requirements for disabled use. In order to ensure that your business can be a safe haven for disabled individuals, it is imperative that you take a quick tour of these new laws.

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

The Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1992 and is the most critical piece of civil rights legislation in over 20 years. Under the ADA, businesses are legally required to allow people with disabilities access to their business. (see section 42.2, ADA manual for more info).

Under the ADA, businesses are required to retain at least the following five things:

  • entrances to the restroom (if customers use their own; if others use the restroom, the doors must be wide enough to allow the wheelchair through)
  • doors to the restrooms

Permits Required

What Types of Businesses Need Permits and How To Apply How to prepare.

In most jurisdictions, planning board members will screen applicant with a warrant process.

There are fees associated with the application.

There may be zoning and planning review board meetings.

You may need to hire an attorney to assist you through the process.

You may need to undergo a comprehensive review with the development review board.

If you don’t have a property or lot to work with, you still need to go through the document and review phase.

You need to be prepared to provide detailed architectural drawings, construction drawings, as well as, working drawings, if applicable to your particular project.

If you have hurdles, it is best to work closely with an attorney or a planner to help you complete your plans or advise you on zoning laws.

To avoid potential problems, speak with a lawyer that understands the zoning laws and can help you through the zoning process.

Restrictive Covenants

#4 – What the Signage Ordinances Are

The LADBS has set up very specific regulations for directional signage in California – including zoning regulations – so that a small sign will not grossly impact the visual quality of the landscape and will not go to excess to convey the message.

There are three specific regulations that impact both signs and structures:

  • Zoning requirements for sign sizes and spacing
  • Permitted sign positions and types

When You Can’t Find the Answers

Bottom Line: Do Your Research or Hire a Professional

The big challenge for small businesses is finding a place to operate. Zoning requirements can be complex and allow for very little leeway in terms of location or size. They do, however, vary from state to state.

How to Do Your Research

Before you begin looking for a location, it’s essential that you do research on the relevant zoning regulations for your particular area. Even if the location is zoned for a small business, the regulations may be complicated and difficult to understand.

Fortunately, there are plenty of resources available to help you understand what you can and can’t do with your small business. If you’re serious about getting the location of your dreams into your tiny workspace, you’ll need to do some homework.

Looking at the Existing Zoning Regulations

If you want to get the most out of your research time, it’s best to start by looking at the existing zoning regulations. Since the old rules may have been in place for years, the current regulations may require you to amend them to accommodate your business.

To get a better understanding of the existing regulations, legally you can request a copy of the zoning ordinance or district plan. The zoning criteria in your area should be clearly defined.