Complying with Zoning Requirements

July 1, 2011

Property sellers often inaccurately tell shop owners they can perform collision repair operations on a particular piece of land they’re looking to buy. Some owners get into trouble because they sign agreements to purchase or lease property sites, only to find out later that the location can’t be used for their type of business, says Michael Bates, consulting engineer at Long Beach, Calif.–based MB Technical Services. FenderBender talked to Bates about where you can obtain information on zoning requirements in your area, and how to work with city councils if you need special approval for a building or property alteration.

There are three main zoning categories: residential, commercial and industrial. Generally, collision repair shops are allowed in commercial and industrial zones. Some cities restrict collision repair businesses to industrial zones only.

Cities want to keep organizations with heavy industrial uses in the same area to keep the city as clean as possible. They want to prevent residential areas from being negatively impacted by businesses.

“It’s important for shop owners to understand the building and property rules they must abide by.”

Make sure to check with your local government before you sign a lease or purchase a piece of property. Go to the city hall and speak with the city planner to acquire zoning information. The city planner can provide you with a color-coded map of the city, which highlights where the various zones are located. That will help you to know whether your business is allowed to operate on a particular piece of property, so you don’t acquire land that your business can’t actually use. It’s important for shop owners to understand the building and property rules they must abide by. You can also ask the city planner for a set of rules or regulations that need to be followed within each zone. Those documents are public records. They can be purchased for only $5 to $10.

Zoning ordinances are very comprehensive. They regulate the following aspects of your building and property:
• What the building can be used for
• Building height
• Lot coverage
• Setback requirements
• Parking

Shop owners can apply for a special use permit if they want to put their business in a zone that does not allow collision repair facilities by right, or if they cannot conform to the rules outlined by the zoning ordinances. Most cities have a group of people who review applications for special use permits, called planning commissions or design review boards.

You want to think hard about applying for a special use permit because there are fees required when submitting an application. Application fees can range from $3,000 to $10,000 without any guarantee that you will receive approval.

Shop owners must submit a complete set of plans to the planning commission to apply for a special use permit. Documents that must be submitted include: site plan, floor plan, building elevations, parking layout, landscaping and signage. The planning commission will review those documents for approval.

The planning commission’s decision can be appealed to the city council if the business owner does not agree with their decision. The city council has the authority to override the planning commission’s initial decision.

Working with city councils can be a lengthy process. There’s usually a public hearing, and it could take three to nine months before it even takes place. The business owner must stand before the city council, planning commission and members of the public to review the information and answer questions.

It’s a multi-department review. The city council will get comments from the fire department, air pollution control district, sanitation and public works. Input from all of these departments is considered before the council gives its final decision.

City councils reject business applications for special use permits for two reasons:
1. Companies cannot demonstrate how their business use will be in harmony with the other surrounding uses.
2. Companies cannot demonstrate that they are able to meet all of the parking and landscaping requirements.

Shop owners should work closely with members of the city staff during the special permit application process. That will help them come up with a submittal that will meet all of the necessary requirements, and increase their chances of obtaining approval.

Remember, any construction you do requires a permit. You need a permit for building or property alterations even if your design plan is allowed within city zoning ordinances. There is no hearing for this kind of thing. These types of permits must be acquired through your city’s building department.

Let’s say you want to put up a sign, for example. You have to submit a set of drawings that show how the sign will be constructed, what it will look like and how it will be structurally supported. A city engineer will review your plan.

Most cities have a list of individuals who provide consulting services on zoning regulations. The city will provide that list of resources to a business owner for free. Shop owners can contact those people for assistance in complying with the rules and working with the city council. You just need to make sure that you work with someone who clearly understands the zoning ordinances for your specific local area.

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