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A primer on Philadelphia zoning laws

This blog has discussed several aspects of Philadelphia's zoning code, including spot zoning, variances, conditional uses and rezonings. Now, it's time to step back a bit and provide an overall guide to the zoning process.

Zoning is the process whereby the city defines acceptable and unacceptable uses for all of the land within the city limits. In 1924, the United States Supreme Court decided that zoning and land use regulation did not violate the constitutional provision that prevents the state from taking property without paying due compensation to the owner. Now, virtually every city, town and village in the country has a zoning code. Pennsylvania law requires every municipality to adopt a zoning code and to adhere to certain state standards in its administration.

Philadelphia's zoning code divides the city into zoning districts and specifies the types of land uses that are permitted or prohibited within each district. For example, a district zoned to permit single-family dwellings will not have industrial uses. The zoning code also specifies certain dimensional limits on building height, lot coverage and setbacks (distance from the street) for each zoning district.

A person who wants to construct a building or renovate an existing building must obtain a zoning permit from the Department of Licenses and Inspections. If the existing zoning does not allow the proposed use or imposes conditions that the owner feels are unfair or burdensome, the owner may request a re-zoning and appeal any adverse ruling to the Zoning Board of Appeals. A land owner may also request either a variance or a conditional use permit in order to construct a building that is not an explicitly permitted use in the zoning district.

Navigating the city's zoning code is not a simple task. Anyone who is contemplating constructing a building or remodeling an existing structure would benefit from a consultation with a lawyer who specializes in real estate and zoning matters. Such an attorney can provide useful advice on the requirements of the zoning code and can also help steer the zoning application through the city's administrative process.

Source: Spirit Community Newspapers, "Zoning for Dummies," Austin Nolen, May 6, 2015

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