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What Are Local Zoning and Building Requirements?

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Created on Monday, December 28, 2015
Updated on Monday, February 26, 2018
by Land Century

If you’re purchasing land for development purposes, be it residential or commercial, it’s important to consider local zoning and building requirements. These requirements will have an effect on how you use the property. While similar in nature, zoning and building requirements have different functions. It’s important to understand these two functions to ensure your project moves along as swiftly and quickly as possible.

In a nutshell, zoning requirements determine how you can use the land and what type of structures can be built (i.e. residential, commercial, etc.), while building requirements (or codes) are a set of standards that all structures must meet to ensure safety.

What are Local Zoning Requirements?

Zoning requirements pertain exclusively to land use – not the building or structure itself. To put it simply, zoning codes regulate how a plot of land can be used and what type of structures can be built on the property. Before you can build a structure on any piece of property, you will need to obtain a zoning permit from your local planning agency.

And before you even buy a plot of land, you should first research the property to ensure it’s zoned for your desired purpose. You don’t want to buy a piece of residential property if you plan on using it for a commercial building – your project will never see the light of day.

New York City was one of the first cities in America to adopt zoning regulations in the early 1900s. It’s believed that the construction of the Equitable Building in the city sparked the need for regulations. The structure covered windows of nearby buildings and deprived the streets below of natural light. As a result, the country’s first zoning code was developed, and this code would become the model for zoning regulations all throughout the United States.

Zoning requirements determine how land should be subdivided and developed. Generally, there are three types of zoning districts in each municipality: commercial, residential and industrial. These are further divided into sub levels that include guidelines for height, density and a variety of other measures. Limits are placed on where you can build on land, how high you can build and how much. Zoning also regulates the placement of easements, alleys, driveways, garages, fences, signs, parking areas, and in some cases, swimming pools.

Zoning regulations designate the density and bulk allowed in each district. This includes floor-area ratio features, yards and open space as well as the number of buildings permitted on each zoning lot. In most instances, obtaining a zoning permit is the first step when starting a development project. Depending on the location and size of the project, the building permit application process may actually include zoning clearance. If this is not the case, you’ll need to apply for a separate zoning permit before you can apply for a building permit.

Naturally, you should check zoning laws before you proceed with your development plans. Contact your county or city clerk’s office to obtain a copy of your local ordinance. You may also consider consulting with an experienced attorney to help you through the compliance and zoning clearance process.

What are Building Code Requirements?

Once you’ve obtained approval from the local zoning department, you can proceed with obtaining a building permit. Building codes pertain to the structure itself, and focus on the building’s physical features, including characteristics that have an effect on accessibility and safety.

Buildings constructed in the United States fall under the International Building Code (i.e. Commercial or Residential Code).

While zoning codes pertain to land use, building codes pertain to the structure itself. While you may have obtained a zoning permit to build a retail shopping center, you will still need a building permit to actually build the structure.

Building codes are, essentially, a set of rules that specify the minimum safety and quality requirements that all developers must meet. Buildings are divided into different sections, and categorized into chapters or classifications that determine the risk level they pose to building occupants. These might include:

* The maximum number of people that can occupy the building or structure.
* The building’s function.
* The size of or location of walls, rooms, structures, floors, hallways, stairways, light fixtures, and plumbing in the building.

Essentially, building codes provide developers with an outline of quality standards that the building must meet. Architects are left to decide on how to design a building in a way that satisfies the International Building Code. In order to ensure the building is in compliance with code standards, a blueprint or a drawing of the structure is required during the building permit application process.

While it may appear to be an additional obstacle in your path to developing your structure, building codes are in place to ensure that all building occupants are safe. Structural failures of the past, including the Great Chicago Fire in 1871, have helped shape stronger building codes to further improve the safety and longevity of newly constructed buildings.

Before you can obtain a building permit, you must submit a set of construction documents. An agent, architect or engineer can prepare the documents for you. In some cities, only licensed builders can apply for and secure a building permit for construction. Even if not required, it’s often better to have your builder obtain these permits on your behalf because he or she is experienced in the process.

Building and zoning requirements are a natural part of the development process. While they may be perceived as a hindrance, they’re put in place to ensure that all structures are safe and won’t have a negative impact on the community. Before you start working on your project, consider performing a feasibility study to ensure that your investment aligns with your long-term goals and will be worth the cost. Also, consider meeting with architects to discuss how these local laws will affect your budget and timeline. Don’t forget to contact your local zoning agency to gather as much information as possible and make an informed decision about your project.
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