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The 6-Step Process for Getting a Zoning Permit in Philadelphia

ipad with zoning map

The Process for Getting a Zoning Permit in Philadelphia

Following zoning laws and obtaining the right permits can get tricky and frustrating for businesses in Pennsylvania. As a business owner, you want to make sure your property is in compliance so you can avoid fines or delays, but also want to be positioned to be profitable. This guide by Davis, Bucco, & Makara, Real Estate and Construction Law Firm, will walk you through the key steps and requirements for getting a zoning permit in Philadelphia.

Our team of zoning attorneys has 35+ years of experience in zoning law, and has advised clients in handling zoning permits, variances, and code. Call Davis Bucco & Makara today at 610-238-0880 for more information. 

Overview of Zoning Permit Requirements in Philadelphia

Philadelphia has its own zoning code that regulates land use and construction. Here are some key things to know:

  • Zoning designation - Philadelphia is divided into different zoning districts, each with permitted uses. You'll need to check that your intended property use aligns with the zoning.

  • Permitted uses - The zoning code lists which uses are allowed in each district. Uses may be permitted by right or require special exceptions or variances.

  • Dimensional standards - Requirements exist for aspects like building height, lot occupancy, and setbacks. Your plans must conform.

  • Parking minimums - The code mandates a minimum number of parking spaces for different building uses. Fulfilling this parking requirement is critical.

  • Signage regulations - Rules for sign size, placement, and illumination depend on factors like zoning district and business type. Sign permits are usually required.

Thoroughly reviewing the relevant zoning regulations is essential before buying property or starting construction in Philadelphia. Failure to comply could derail your plans.

Step 1 - Evaluate Your Zoning District and Permitted Uses

The first step is verifying that your intended property use aligns with the designated zoning district. Philadelphia has 10 base zoning districts, which regulate uses ranging from residential to industrial.

You can look up the zoning classification for a property by searching the Philadelphia Zoning Map. The map provides zoning information block-by-block across the entire city.

Once you know the zoning district, refer to the zoning code's use regulations to see if your planned use is permitted. Some uses are allowed by right, while others require special exceptions or variances. Uses may also be prohibited in some districts.

If your use is not permitted, you may need to apply for a variance or special exception. The zoning board reviews such requests through public hearings. Approval is not guaranteed, so selecting a property already zoned for your use is ideal.

Step 2 – Review Dimensional Standards and Requirements

In addition to use restrictions, Philadelphia’s zoning code sets dimensional standards for different districts. Dimensional requirements regulate building bulk, height, density, and placement.

Some key dimensional standards include:

  • Building height – Limits exist on maximum building height and number of stories.

  • Lot occupancy – This controls what percentage of a lot can be occupied by buildings.

  • Floor area ratio (FAR) – FAR regulates total floor area in relation to lot size. A larger lot allows more buildable floor space.

  • Yard and setback rules – Minimum setbacks from property lines must be maintained.

Make sure your development plans adhere to the dimensional standards for the zoning district. Seeking variances for excessive height, density, or inadequate setbacks will delay the permitting process.

Step 3 - Calculate Required Parking Spaces

Philadelphia’s zoning code mandates minimum parking requirements based on building use. For example, office spaces need 1 parking space per 1,000 square feet. Restaurants need 1 space per 4 seats.

Failing to provide sufficient parking will prevent you from obtaining permits. The parking requirements are intended to prevent congestion and neighborhood disruption.

Some tips when planning parking:

  • Calculate total spaces needed according to zoning rules

  • Design an on-site parking lot or garage

  • Seek a variance if providing parking is infeasible

  • Utilize satellite parking with shuttle service

Getting parking right is essential for approval. Insufficient parking is a frequent reason for rejected zoning permits.

Step 4 - Determine Signage Needs and Regulations

Installing signage for your business also involves zoning considerations. Philadelphia's zoning code regulates sign placement, size, design, and other aspects.

Key signage rules include:

  • Permit required for signs larger than two sq. ft.

  • Maximum sign sizes depend on factors like building width

  • Illumination standards exist for sign lighting

  • Placement rules regulate setbacks and clearances

  • Design guidelines prohibit distracting elements

  • Zoning district determines what signs are allowed

Take time to understand the signage standards. You'll also need to apply for sign permits once your zoning permit is issued.

Step 5 - Submit Your Zoning Permit Application

After reviewing the zoning requirements, it’s time to submit your permit application.

In Philadelphia, zoning permit applications are handled by the Department of Licenses and Inspections (L+I). You can apply online through L+I’s eClipse portal or submit paper applications.

The application must include:

  • Property address, zoning district, parcel numbers

  • Description of project/proposed use

  • Dimensioned site plans showing development details

  • Information on parking, landscaping, and other requirements

  • Justification showing compliance with zoning standards

Submitting complete, accurate applications helps speed up permit approval. You may need to work with expeditors, architects, or other professionals to assemble everything.

Step 6 - Obtain Reviews, Approvals and Issue Permit

After receiving your application, L+I distributes it for review by pertinent city agencies. For example, the Streets Department reviews access and drainage plans. The City Planning Commission looks at zoning compliance.

Modifications may be requested if issues arise. You’ll also need approval from the Department of Public Health regarding bathrooms, exits, and facilities.

Once all reviews are completed and agencies sign off, L+I can issue the zoning and building permits. You can then proceed with construction or occupancy. This process takes around 4-6 weeks on average.

Leverage Experienced Legal Help for Your Zoning Permit

Delaying with Philadelphia’s complex zoning code and permit process is challenging. Having an experienced zoning attorney on your side helps ensure you get the approvals needed in a timely manner.

A construction and zoning attorney that has experience in successfully getting zoning permits for clients in Pennsylvania should provide assistance with:

  • Guidance on permitted uses and compliance strategies

  • Help obtaining variances or special exceptions

  • Reviewing plans to spot potential zoning issues

  • Assistance completing permit applications

  • Facilitating dialogues with the city when problems arise

Don’t leave your zoning permit to chance. Leveraging legal experience maximizes success and prevents costly surprises from not complying with zoning laws and nuances.

Our team of zoning attorneys has 35+ years of experience in zoning law, and has advised clients in handling zoning permits, variances, and code. Call Davis Bucco & Makara today at 610-238-0880 for more information. 

Frequently Asked Questions about Pennsylvania Zoning Laws

  1. What are the penalties for non-compliant properties?

Violating Philadelphia zoning rules can lead to fines up to $2,000 per day. The city may also obtain injunctions forcing fixes or stopping occupancy.

  1. How can I research my property's zoning classification?

Use the Philadelphia Zoning Map to look up the zoning district. The zoning code then details permitted uses, dimensional standards, and other regulations for that district.

  1. What if my property use is nonconforming with current zoning?

Nonconforming uses that legally existed before zoning changes may continue, but can't be expanded. New development must adhere to current zoning.

  1. Can I get an exemption from parking requirements?

In certain cases, variances can be granted to reduce parking minimums if meeting the full requirement is demonstrably infeasible.

  1. How long does the zoning permit process take in Philadelphia?

The approval process typically takes 4 to 6 weeks, but can vary depending on project complexity and departmental workloads.