Zoning laws for small businesses: What you need to know

Zoning laws (also known as zoning ordinances) define 1) the types of land uses allowed in a given area, and 2) building regulations, such as maximum building sizes or fire escapes. You need to know the zoning laws for your area and building if you want to start a business.

These are the most popular federal and municipal zoning laws.

  • Commercial versus residential versus manufacturing
  • Types of commercial enterprises allowed, e.g. Manufacturing, retail or restaurant
  • Safety and health regulations, such as the use of toxic chemicals or the availability of fire extinguishers, are important.
  • Parking requirements
  • Requirements for setback
  • Signage
  • There are many types of buildings that could occupy an area.
  • Dimension of buildings and requirements internal like multiple exits
  • Floor to Area Ratios (FAR) are used for e.g. You must allow for walking space, etc.
  • You have adequate lighting, air, ventilation, and open space
  • Accessibility, e.g. Americans with Disabilities Act

These are the top 4 things to know about zoning laws:

  1. Which Zone Is Your Building In?
  2. This Zone Allows You to List Your Business
  3. What are the building requirements?
  4. What are the Signage Requirements?

#1 – In Which Zone Is Your Building?

Understanding how zoning regulations and building codes affect small businesses is the first step. Locate the GIS mapping system for the county. These services are available online by many cities and counties. All you need to do is search for the maps and layers. This can be done by simply typing “zoning for my county” into Google. Locate the land or property you are interested in, and check the zoning status.

Learn more: 

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New York City’s Zoning & Land Use Map

Report on a Manhattan building

Here’s a quick cheat sheet:

Zone What does it mean? Notes
Residential You will need to apply for a Home Occupation permit or something similar. To run a business from your home. It is not allowed to operate a business from a commercial building. Although you can operate many different types of businesses from your home, there are usually restrictions. In New York City, for example, there are restrictions on how large a business can be located in a single location. Additionally certain businesses such as beauty parlors or public relations are not permitted.
You are allowed to construct buildings for business purposes and run business operations. There are often subtypes of commercial areas such as office buildings or retail.
Industrial You can erect buildings to accommodate certain businesses, and you can also conduct business operations at higher noise levels and with more waste. There are many subtypes of industrial, such as chemical intensive or light manufacturing. These zones are often subject to strict safety and environmental codes.
Agricultural For farming. Restricted to non-agricultural development and use.
Historical Most homes and building areas are over 50 years of age. Businesses are allowed to operate, but must keep the buildings intact and make only limited changes or renovations.
Aesthetic These are most prominent in cities. This allows some businesses to be open, but it requires that buildings and businesses adhere to certain color schemes, landscaping requirements and building restrictions (decks) among other things.

Sometimes, a property may have multiple designations, like Residential-Commercial or Commercial-Residential, also known as zoning overlap, which allow owners or occupiers of the opportunity to use it in either way.

#2 – Is Your Business Allowed in This Zone?

Congratulations if you have found your zone. This is the easy part. It gets difficult now. Many zoning regulations evolved over time due to very specific legislation that targeted specific cities. Many areas have extremely complex regulations. To make things even more complicated, many municipalities have their own acronyms for referencing different allowances and restrictions. Cross reference zones with the allowance categories, then check for any variances to that area or unit.

Your zone should be mapped to allowable uses. In New York, you will find the Zoning District. Then, you can look up the permitted uses for that district.

Use Groups are found in the district definition

Then, you can look up the Use Group definition. Here is an example of “Use Groups” in NYC. It is buried in a Zoning Resolution.

Example of Mapping Zoning Laws to Allowed Businesses

There may be additional classifications that allow or disallow specific uses.

Sometimes searching online is not enough. To verify the covenants of a lot or neighborhood, you may need to visit a county recorder’s offices.

#3 – What are the Building Requirements?

You need to be familiar with the requirements of your area for building new buildings or altering existing ones. A FAR (Floor Area Ratio) is an example of a maximum building area for a given lot. It can be dictated by zoning laws.

Floor Area Ratio Calculation

The building zoning laws cover parking, walkways, setbacks, distance from street and the number of rooms permitted.

Codes of Building

Local building codes cover many building requirements, including building size and other requirements. These are:

  • Administration of buildings, e.g. licensing, maintenance, etc.
  • You can find plumbing codes here, e.g. Plumbing codes, e.g. fixtures, water heaters and storm drainage.
  • Codes for mechanical systems, e.g. Ventilation, boilers and water heaters, solar system, etc.
  • Fuel gas codes, e.g. gas piping, chimneys, appliances, etc.
  • General building code, e.g. interior finishes, fire protection , exits, building materials, etc.

Americans with Disabilities Act

All new buildings constructed must comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in addition to zoning ordinances, building codes, and other regulations. The Federal law covers the following:

  • Accessible entrances
  • Accessible routes
  • Accessible toilets
  • Accessible telephones
  • Accessible drinking fountains
  • Parking, storage and alarms accessible

To check if construction has taken place on your property since 1990 when the ADA was implemented, you can go to the permit database of the jurisdiction. You or your landlord could be held responsible for bringing the space up-to-code.

Applicable ADA standards based on date of construction

Permits are required

You will need permits if you are building or altering buildings. You may have to obtain permits if you want others in the area or to challenge your plans. You may need to complete any permits or approvals that were issued before you purchased the property.

Restrictive Covenants

You may also be subject to restrictive covenants from land developers. This is particularly true for leased properties. You may be restricted by the developer regarding signage, aesthetics, parking, and so forth.

While it is helpful to be familiar with the building codes and zoning, your best option is to hire a licensed contractor who knows all about building regulations and permits in your area.

#4 – What are the Signage Ordinances?

Many cities and counties have separate sign ordinances that you must comply with. The modern sign you have designed for your brand might not be permitted in an historic office building. These codes are used by sign companies to apply for permits. However, you should also consult them before signing leases and purchase agreements. For more information, consult your county recorder or zoning committee.

NYC Signage Rules for Commercial Corner-Lot Properties

If you can’t find the answers,

If you haven’t figured out what you can do or how to go about it, you should call a telephone number or visit an office. Many planning and zoning offices will have an analyst available to answer any questions regarding permit applications during normal business hours. A few jurisdictions have record centers where technicians can answer your questions and do research. Never hesitate to ask a question. Asking questions early will save you time and headaches. If in doubt, seek professional assistance.

Bottom line: Do your research or hire a professional

Before you move your business to a commercial property, or begin construction on your property, make sure that you are familiar with the building regulations and zoning laws applicable to your property. Or get professional help. You must understand the following:

  • How your property is zoned
  • What are the permitted businesses
  • What are the building requirements
  • What are the signage restrictions

It would be a shame to have all your work and planning completed only to discover that you are not in compliance.