Some times the best thing you can do at the beginning of the project is a feasibility study. These include code research, zoning research, measuring the building or site, site analysis, and in some cases, an energy analysis. In commercial projects, this simple step could save a lot of time, effort, and money for a client.
Recently I did a feasibility study for a client. I went out, measured the building, spent time researching the code based on the use they wanted for the building and developed a study based on their requirements. I then contacted the town in which they were located to clarify some zoning issues and found out that the use they were proposing for this building was not allowed in the zoning district where they were located. I took for granted that the existing use of their building was a grandfathered use, and that similar uses would be allowed.
The client, however, was still very interested in pursuing the idea that they have for the space. So they asked me what the requirements would be in order to make this use happen in this location. Contacting the town resulted in the information necessary, however, it would be an uphill battle. The town requires that you convince your town councilor to take up your petition and bring it in front of the town Council in order to change the actual zoning in the area to incorporate this use.
All towns are different and have different rules. In the City where I live, citizens can petition the Planning Board to change the zoning. The City Council can ask the Planning Board to revise Zoning, or the City can ask the Planning board to revise zoning. In this smaller town, the Town Council is in charge of changing zoning and there is not a mechanism for residents to petition the board. Residents would be required to submit to their Town Councilor or one of the At Large Councilors to bring the issue in front of the Council.
At that time, the Councilor needs to convince the other members of the board to change the zoning. Typically they will notify the abutting neighbors to get their input on the matter. Then they will hold a public hearing to discuss the issue at hand where the board will ask questions and public input will be held. It can be a very serious issue when changing zoning to allow additional uses. Although the zoning district where this client would like to add a use is very small, sometimes changing uses in a zoning district can affect several neighborhoods and hundreds of square miles within the town or city. These zoning changes can be a very complicated matter. Although the Council may agree with your project in your location, if it affects larger parts of the town or city it may not be in their best interest to allow the use. It also can be challenging for the board because they can not appear to have awarded favoritism to a particular project and must look at the use within the zoning and not at a specific site.
Zoning Ordinances can be very difficult to change and swaying a town or city Council can be a challenge. So if you are considering a project, maybe it is a residence with a home business or a commercial space in a restricted zone, contact someone and have a feasibility study done on your project. It might be the best couple hundred dollars you ever spent. It also will tell you what is allowable in your area and may help you to restructure your project to something more economically viable or at least allowable in your zoning district.