What’s the Difference Between Zoning and Building Codes?

Bridgette Austin by Bridgette Austin on July 17, 2014
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When choosing a business location, it’s never too late to start thinking about how zoning laws and building codes will affect the purchase and future renovations of an existing property. While zoning and building codes are closely related, they both serve different functions. In a nutshell, zoning codes regulate how a given section of land can be used and what type of businesses can utilize the land and its structures; on the other hand, building codes regulate the details of the structures themselves. Prior to construction or renovation, you must first get a zoning permit before obtaining a building permit through your local planning agency.

Zoning Codes and Zoning Permits

As mentioned earlier, zoning codes regulate the type of structures that can be built in a given location, as well as how that structure interacts with the land it will be built upon. New York City was among the first American cities to adopt zoning regulations in the early 20th century. It’s said that upon its construction, New York City’s Equitable Building blocked the windows and deprived nearby buildings and the streets below of natural light. This ushered in the country’s first zoning code, which quickly became the model for zoning regulations throughout the rest of the U.S.

In fact, most developed countries around the world now use some form of zoning in their land and urban planning. These devices, or “zoning ordinances” (also referred to as “land use ordinances”), determine how land within boroughs, cities, counties, parishes and townships should be subdivided and developed for residential, commercial and industrial use. In addition to separating municipalities into different zones, zoning governs issues including but not limited to the placement of alleys, driveways, easements, fences, garages, parking areas, signs and even swimming pools.

The Purpose of Zoning

Within each zoning district, there are guidelines governing how a building will function in its potential location as well as its actual location within the zone. Since there are a variety of different structures that can be built within each zone, these zoning regulations typically designate what bulk and density are allowed within each district. Functional zoning often regulates bulk (i.e. features related to floor-area ratio, height, open space and yards) and lot density (i.e. the maximum number of buildings allowed per zoning lot).

Here’s an example of how zoning works: On a scale of 1 to 10, an R1 district in New York City would likely represent a residential suburban community characterized by single-family homes and large, sprawling lawns. On the other end of the spectrum, an R10 district features a higher density of smaller, apartment-type units usually located near central business centers. These will likely include pedestrian-friendly streets and feature high-rise condominiums.

Why Zoning Is Important

In nearly all cases, applying for and receiving a zoning permit is the first step in the development process. Depending on the project and municipality, zoning clearance may be part of the application process for a building permit. In other cases, developers must apply for a separate zoning permit prior to applying for a building permit.

Best practices stipulate that developers should always check zoning laws before proceeding with the development of a new structure or the renovation of an existing one. And if you’re thinking of setting up a home-based business, there may be restrictions on what you can do to the building’s exterior or the number of visitors or employees who can use the building.

Additionally, be sure to contact your city or county clerk’s office for a copy of your local ordinance. You can also consult an attorney with expertise in local land use to guide you through the zoning clearance and compliance process.

The Building Code and Permits

Once you receive approval from your local zoning department, the next step is getting a building permit. The building code deals with the structure itself: its physical features and how these characteristics affect safety and accessibility. U.S. buildings fall under the International Building Code, also known as the International Commercial or Residential Code (ICC/IRC).

The important distinction between zoning codes and building codes is that, while zoning codes and zoning permits are concerned with land use, building codes and building permits deal exclusively with the structure itself. For instance, you might have received a zoning permit for permission to build a car dealership, but you will still need a building permit that allows you to actually build it.

The Purpose of Building Codes

Building codes comprise a set of rules that specify the minimal quality and safety requirements that developers must meet. Different sections of a building or structure are divided into numerous chapters or classifications to determine the level of risk they pose to occupants. These include:

  • The function of a building (e.g. a factory, museum, residential home, etc.)
  • The number of people or occupant load of the building or structure
  • The size and location of rooms, walls, floors, roof structures, stairs, hallways, plumbing and light fixtures within the building or structure

Building codes outline the level of performance and quality standards your building must adhere to, but it’s up to your architect to figure out how your design satisfies ICC/IRC guidelines. To ensure compliance with code standards, a drawing or blueprint of your construction is generally required during the permit application process.

Why Building Codes Are Important

Building codes are in place to ensure the safety and wellbeing of tenants, residents and other individuals who occupy buildings and structures. The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 and other examples of structural failures were catalysts for the introduction of stronger codes around the alteration, construction, repair (this typically excludes ordinary repairs) and demolition of buildings in the U.S.

Before a building is erected, the agent, architect, engineer or owner must submit a set of construction documents before receiving a building permit. In some municipalities, the applicant must show the local agency that he or she is a licensed builder in order to secure a permit for construction.

Conclusion

Some owners and builders may perceive zoning regulations and building codes as a hindrance. However, if you know what to expect before you begin the development process, they don’t have to be. If you’re a property owner, meet with architects ahead of the construction schedule to start discussions around how these laws will affect your timeline and budget. Contact your local zoning agency to gather the information you need to make an informed decision. Finally, consider performing a feasibility study to help you decide if the investment makes sense and aligns with your long-term business goals.

Bridgette Austin

Based out of New York City, Bridgette is a technology writer in the higher education sector. Throughout her career, she has written a variety of business publications for organizations ranging from Big Four accounting firms and environmental consultancies, to software and college textbook companies.

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