Ugh. That, and a number of other more profane words, are likely what a building owner said when he found he wasn’t in compliance with his subdivision’s zoning laws and neighborhood covenants. Failing to comply with these rules (and building codes, too) can cost you bigtime.

The case occurred in rural Colona, Illinois. A pole building, constructed in a subdivision, was ruled in Henry County Circuit Court to be a violation of both homeowner association covenants and the Henry County zoning ordinance.

The judge in the case ruled that the structure, which was nearly complete, had to be taken down. According to Barb Beran, Plan Supervisor of Wick Buildings, this is a perfect example of why you need to take the proper steps to ensure your building is in compliance with a variety of zoning laws and building codes.

In this post, we’ll provide you with a multi-step process to help ensure you’re in compliance.

Sometimes it’s Your Fault in Bypassing Zoning Laws. Sometimes Not.

Barb’s role at Wick Buildings is to ensure new construction work is up to code with local and state regulations.  She has plenty of stories of people discovering they were not in compliance with zoning laws and building codes.

Barb Beran, Plan Supervisor of Wick BuildingsBarb Beran, Plan Supervisor of Wick Buildings

There are times when the fault falls entirely on the owner. We’ve made clients aware of potential violations, and in some cases, they decide to proceed with construction, knowing they are out of compliance. Whatever their motives – money, ideology, being stubborn – they almost always lose in the end.

In other cases, clients have had their land rezoned right under their feet – especially in the cases of agricultural zoning. A county may see the potential for more tax revenue and rezone a property. These can often be overturned in the case of appeals, but sometimes not.

No matter what the predicament, these cases can be avoided with more upfront legwork and solid communication between all the approval parties. Here’s how it’s done.

Step #1 – Know Your Zoning Laws

Barb notes the first thing you must know is exactly how your property is zoned.  Zoning is how a local government decides the use for a piece of physical land. Zoning laws typically divide land into:

  • Residential
  • Commercial
  • Industrial
  • Urban services
  • Agricultural
  • Direct control

The idea behind zoning is to segregate usage types that are thought to be incompatible. The zoning laws are typically set by a zoning committee, and they prevent new development from interfering with existing uses — such as putting a bar or tavern next to a school.

There are different zoning laws.

Zoning laws also provide rules on issues such as setbacks on property, height restrictions, and how large your building can be compared to your lot size.

Different counties and municipalities will have different zoning rules, so it’s important to call your local agency and work with them to determine the specific zoning restrictions for your property. Contact the County Office to see if you are required to obtain a building permit and see what rules apply.

Step #2 – Research the Building Codes

Zoning laws specify how a piece of land can be used, and what type of businesses can use it. Building codes specify the details of the structure itself.

Building codes deal with the physical characteristics of the structure, and how these affect life, safety and accessibility. U.S. buildings fall under the International Building Code, also known as the International Commercial or Residential Code (ICC/IRC).

 Use of building is determined by IBC building code.

Usage of a building is determined by means of the IBC building code, which is a result of what is happening inside the building such as a factory, auto repair shop or warehouse.  Typically it’s up to your engineer, architect or builder to make this determination and make sure all aspects of the project meet all the code requirements.

Step #3 – Check With Your Local Municipality for Ordinances

Often overlooked are municipal ordinances. In one case, a man built a property that complied with zoning restrictions, but he didn’t realize the height of his structure exceeded a building restriction from the city.

Meet with your municipality before construction begins, and share your plans with them.  There may be a planning commission in the case of a larger municipality, or it may be a single-person planning official.

They’re the ordinance experts; rely on them to make sure your building complies with all ordinances or will qualify for an exception. Then get their written approval before you begin work.

Step #4 – Check Your Neighborhood Covenants

In the case of a suburban building that we noted at the beginning of the post, the real reason the structure wound up in court was that the owner’s neighbors objected, citing covenant restrictions.  

Neighbors objected to the structure.

Note the defense pointed out that other buildings had exceeded the covenants in the past. The judge ruled that simply because no one had objected in the past didn’t make the current offense allowable.

Review the neighborhood covenants, and submit them to your homeowner association (if you have one) for review. You may even consider getting written approval from your surrounding neighbors before you begin construction.

Step #5 – Meet With the Fire Marshal

People don’t realize that fire marshals trump all zoning and building codes. In other words, even if you’re in compliance with all codes, laws and ordinances, they may view your structure as a potential hazard and shut it down. 

This especially applies to buildings used for the gathering of large groups of people, or a building that is considered “High Hazard Usage” such as certain factories or warehouses involving chemicals.  Sometimes even a storage or warehouse building might get flagged if the storage of flammable materials such as furniture is involved.

Fire marshal trump all codes.

If you question any of these things, seek out the fire marshal before you make a move.

What Type of Plans Should You Submit for Approval?

Barb said you can keep your plans relatively simple.  Drawings of the structure will suffice, and it should include:

  • Floor plan – include dimensions
  • Elevation view – include dimensions
  • Exterior – include building materials that will cover the facade

Equally as important as the building’s measurements is communicating its intended use.  Will you be using the building for commercial use? Agricultural use?  “Don’t lie,” Barb warns, as she’s seen plenty of cases where the usage wasn’t properly disclosed upfront.

Since inspections are part of the permit process, someone will find out if you have been deceitful about the building’s use.

Too Much Communication is Not a Bad Thing

We’ve taken you through five steps to ensure you’re presenting plans to all the right people. In each case, over-communication is not a bad thing. Make sure your intentions are clearly expressed and documented.

Clarity and transparency are the key here. If you make every effort about reaching out to the right people, and you’re clear about your intent for the structure, you should avoid the after-the-fact nightmare of having to take a structure down.

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