The time has finally come. You’re ready to turn that hobby into a brand-new home business. Or you’re finally ready to branch out and be your own boss. You’ve got the skills, the experience, and gusto to spare. But when it comes time to start turning your hard work into profit, you find out that you need a permit, or multiple permits, from your local Township office in order to legally use your property as you’ve planned. Even worse, without the proper documents, you could be subject to harsh penalties for violations of your municipality’s zoning ordinance!
Use Approvals for Small Businesses
In Pennsylvania, zoning law is myriad of municipal regulations, state laws and federal protections, which present a daunting challenge for any entrepreneur. More importantly, failing to go through the proper procedure and obtain all necessary approvals can spell disaster for a new enterprise before you’ve even gotten started. As if that weren’t enough, requirements for small or home-based businesses can vary drastically from one municipality to another—meaning that the simple one-page permit application that your friend down the street obtained, could require months of public hearings for you.
Prior to commencing any new business, an entrepreneur needs to determine how the proposed use is treated by the municipal zoning ordinance. Each commercial, residential, agricultural or industrial use is divided into a specific classification and individually regulated. Defined uses may be permitted by right, by special exception, or by conditional use. A use permitted by “special exception” or “conditional use” requires submission of an application to either the municipality’s zoning hearing board or its governing body, and a presentation at a public hearing. While a use permitted “by right” does not require a public hearing in order to obtain a zoning permit (or municipal equivalent), zoning ordinances contain extensive general and “use-specific” standards that may limit or even prohibit otherwise permitted uses. Even minor deviations from these standards require that a “variance” be obtained, resulting in a public hearing before the municipal zoning hearing board.
Use classifications within zoning ordinances are legal terms, with specific definitions. While some such classifications follow common sense, they may also rely on nuanced language or terms-of-art. Proper classification of a proposed use can be the difference between a relatively simple approval and a failed project. As a result, divining the treatment of your proposed business by the layered terms within a zoning ordinance is imperative.
Is Your Home-Business “No-Impact?”
Under Pennsylvania law, “no-impact home-based businesses” must be permitted by right in all residential zoning districts. On its face, this may appear to provide a new home-based business with a fast track through municipal regulation. However as many new entrepreneurs discover, this is often not the case. Whether a home-based business is “no-impact” is a legal determination, which requires that the use comply with the following requirements:
- The business activity shall be compatible with the residential use of the property and surrounding residential uses.
- The business shall employ no employees other than family members residing in the dwelling.
- There shall be no display or sale of retail goods and no stockpiling or inventory of a substantial nature.
- There shall be no outside appearance of a business use, including, but not limited to, parking, signs or lights.
- The business activity may not use any equipment or process which creates noise, vibration, glare, fumes, odors or electrical or electronic interference, including interference with radio or television reception, which is detectable in the neighborhood.
- The business activity may not generate any solid waste or sewage discharge, in volume or type, which is not normally associated with residential use in the neighborhood.
- The business activity shall be conducted only within the dwelling and may not occupy more than 25% of the habitable floor area.
- The business may not involve any illegal activity.
Whether a specific use complies with these standards is a legal determination, and one on which entrepreneurs and municipal zoning officers often do not see eye-to-eye on. However, absent the protective classification as a “no-impact home-based business,” home-based businesses are subject to the same types of use classifications as any other use. Proper application of these factors to your proposed business can save the entrepreneur a great deal of time and expense.
Under Pennsylvania law, municipalities are permitted to impose fines of up to $500.00 per violation, per day, for a use conducted in violation of zoning ordinance provisions. As a result, identifying the zoning approvals required, and obtaining them as early as possible, is critical to avoiding enforcement actions and to the long-term viability of a new enterprise. Navigating the land use approval process requires sound planning. An experienced land use attorney can guide you through the complex web of land use approvals.
The purpose of this discussion is to provide initial insight into a few use classification issues commonly faced for a new business, whether operated within your home or not. Zoning regulations can often surprise an unprepared business owner resulting in additional delay and expense. At Mooney & Associates, we have the knowledge and experience necessary to put your new business in the best position to obtain the zoning approvals needed for your business to flourish. We also have 16 offices conveniently located through Central Pennsylvania and Northern Maryland. Call today to talk to me about your real estate legal needs. Call 717-200-HELP or 1877-632-4656.