First IF, then HOW

Purpose: to provide some much-needed clarity on the order of events for any work to be done outside of the existing footprint.

Read time: 8 Min


This message is for those permitting projects only.


Make friends at the Planning & Zoning office and take full advantage of their “free 20-minute meeting” when you are interested in a project.  I cannot tell you how many times I have worked on a project, met with the Clients/Partners, talked for endless hours about what we planned to do, paid for and drew up plans, only to have the first permit submission get rejected by Planning & Zoning due to myriad reasons why we cannot do what we planned. 


After several of these setbacks, I learned a quick trick that saved me many hours of wasted time: I made myself a regular at the Planning & Zoning department and took full advantage of their 20-minute meeting. This allowed me to quickly consult with them for a quick verification of my plans.  


The amount and quality of information I gained was always well worth the trip.  I learned about neighboring properties, and the history of the property itself.  I got to verify exactly what the Building Department had on record as the total square footage and permitted footprint, which I could then cross-verify with what is actively on-site.  (There have been a few times we have walked away from deals because the existing property was too far away from what the city showed as permitted space.  Re-inspecting work that was already done is a real headache.)


I recently had a project that I walked away from that was an ideal “level-up” property, where I would have peeled off the roof and added another level.  I walked away after a 20 min call with the Planning & Zoning Team. They helped me identify that the existing side setbacks were encroaching on the new code, and they would be unable to permit me to add to the residence without fixing something that had been grandfathered in.  (Remember, it’s only grandfathered if you don’t touch it.  In this case, because I was going to make changes, I was then going to have to change the shape of the house to conform to a later zoning rule.)


Variance and Exemption

These are both words for allowing you to bend or break the zoning rules.  Depending on where you live, I have seen them called different things, but they all mean the same.  It means you want formal permission to bend/break the rules.  Remember, zoning rules are put in place to assist everyone living (or building) in the area to keep status-quo.  Someone seeking a variance or exemption typically has to have a good reason why the decision would be good for the community as a whole, and they rarely do.  (In my opinion, because speed is your key ingredient in making money, anything that slowed down the process of execution should be counter intuitive.  Both of these are slow and painstaking, so my advice would be to avoid them if at all possible).  


The key to a speedy project when working with the city is not to figure out how to get them to do what you want, but to figure out their sandbox of rules and play quickly and easily within them.  



If you are planning on taking your project outside of the existing footprint, or are adding exterior elements that need permitting (e.g. a shed, garage, driveway, or patio), it is my high recommendation that you stop by the Planning and Zoning Office first and verify IF you can do what you are planning to do, before you waste time planning HOW you are going to do what might not even be viable.