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What is a "nonconformity" in Philadelphia zoning?

The Philadelphia zoning code and the zoning map have changed many times over the years. These rezonings often leave individual buildings or lots that do not meet one or more requirements of the amended code or re-drawn map. The city's zoning code defines such uses and buildings as "nonconformities," and it sets limits on changes or expansions.

The zoning code identifies six kinds of nonconformities: uses, structure, parking, site improvements, lots and signs. The basic rule states that any use or lot that was legal at the time of amendment to the code or map may continue as a lawful use subject to the provisions of the zoning code that apply to nonconformities. The right to continue a nonconforming use runs with the lands and may be conveyed to a subsequent owner.

Two important aspects of nonconformities concern interruptions or cessations of use and expansion of the nonconforming use. If a nonconforming use ceases for a period of three years or more, it may not be re-established. Any subsequent use of the lot or building must comply with the amended code. A nonconforming use may be expanded within the boundaries of the original lot or building without approval from the zoning board. A building whose dimensions or footprint make it nonconforming can be altered or expanded if the altered structure satisfies the provisions of the zoning code.

This brief summary has necessarily omitted any extensive discussion of technical limitations on alterations of nonconforming uses. The owner of a nonconformity may wish to consult an experienced real estate lawyer before modifying the building or selling it. A lawyer who specializes in real estate law can explain the fine points of the zoning code as it applies to the specific building or intended improvement and can offer a helpful opinion as to whether the proposed changes or sale are legal.

Source: Philadelphia Zoning Code, "Sec. 14-305 Nonconformities," accessed on Aug. 29, 2015

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