Is Your Building Zoned for Your Use?

BY: JOSEPH BELLER The building you are considering may physically accommodate your needs, but is it legal for such use? Whether you are purchasing or renting, you must make your agreement contingent on obtaining a zoning permit.

Don’t be Fooled by Appearance

The fact that the building has been used for a commercial or industrial use does not mean that you automatically are green lighted for your use. The history in the zoning archives may reveal that the previous use was non-conforming (prior to the zoning code now enforced) or byway of variance. In either event, a change of use by you could mean starting from scratch since the previous uses are lost by a change. Remember that a variance for a particular use is only for that use. You could find yourself with an underlying zoning designation that prohibits your desired use.

What to do

First, check the zoning designation for the address. Then check the code to see what is permitted. Remember, in addition to the code there are many “overlays” throughout the City. These are areas which are legislated by City Council. They often prohibit or require Zoning Board approval approved for uses which the basic code itself seems to permit. In some areas, there are overlays on overlays. For instance, in some parts of Center City, a beauty salon may be allowed, but a nail salon cannot locate on the first floor of the same building. Almost every part of the City has such overlays. Therefore, if you just check the zoning district, you may be misled. Second, is it always a good thing to check your project with the City Planning Commission. They always know the latest in terms of zoning legislation. Third, if you are going to change the building in any significant way, get your plan reviewed. The changes that may trigger a refusal for a permit because of the new code provisions (not enough parking, not enough open space, need for a sprinkler, or need for Zoning Board approval). Fourth, make sure you don’t need additional approvals from other agencies beside the City Planning Commission (Art Commission, Historical Commission, Water Department, or the Streets Department).

Demand a City Certification

All too often, the buyer does not get a City Certification from the seller despite the requirement that the seller should provide it. The City Certification advises you on the zoning designation and the legal use as well as any violations of the City Code. While this doesn’t replace an inspection, it does alert you to the necessity for an explanation. You don’t want to receive a summons for Court for the violation you inherited (many purchasers found out too late that the development they bought was zoned for single family).

Fair Warning

While this article is not the answer to the problem, it is meant to warn you about the possible pitfalls. A warning that bears repeating – make your agreement contingent on the zoning, and then investigate. This article is part of the Business Advisor Quarterly newsletter from Offit Kurman.  You can view the entire newsletter here.

Joseph Beller is a Philadelphia based zoning and land use attorney with over 50 years experience representing developers, business owners, and civic associations. Joseph can be reached at