What To Do When The City Says No

It never fails. You have a multi-million dollar idea of putting a particular business at a particular location. The corner is perfect. The demographics suit the nature and demand of the store, service or restaurant. There is just one big problem-the city is not on board. Just what can be done when a city (township, borough, village, county or parish) is not inclined to allow your project?

First off, you cannot hear a “no” without first proposing a question. So you would undoubtedly speak to and present your proposal to city staff and they would give you a reason for the denial. Are you proposing a commercial business in a residential zone? Is your proposed use not allowed in a particular zone?  They would cite a code (if they don’t, ask them to) and then you could do your own research

  • Research – Is the information that city staff is telling you accurate?

Remember the person at a city counter can make a mistake. There may be exceptions within the code that they were not aware of and fail to inform you of. They may have even mistyped the address and given you the wrong development criteria. Double-check their work! Often the city code is online and accessible for you to do your own homework.

Second, if your project is not an allowable use, find out if the project can be done using planning tools such as a variance or conditional use permit (a.k.a. CUP).

  • Exceptions – Can I do this via a variance or conditional use permit?

In virtually all jurisdictions, you can propose whatever you would like to build; however, you would also do well to get feedback on whether said variance/CUP would be supported or not by the city code before vesting in the site.

Next, if your proposed use is not allowed by right or does not qualify for a variance or CUP you can always move up the departmental ladder to get help. In departments, the highest ranking official is usually the Senior Planner or Planning Director.  If your proposed project does not meet the code or gain their support, your next alternative is to approach legislative bodies to seek a code amendment, or legislative solution to get your project approved.  Examples of legislative bodies include, City Council, the Mayor’s office, the economic development lead agency or the Planning Commission.  The legislative route best suites large developments that can boast public benefits such as new revenues and job creation.  The political machine tends to favor projects that generate tax revenue and jobs.

While this list is not necessarily exhaustive, it should provide you a foundation of some of the options to receive the “blessings” from city staff for your project.  One must also realize that there is still the possible reality that a project cannot be built at all. If it does not fall under the jurisdiction’s criteria for that zone, cannot be built according to building codes, and cannot be achieved through any sort of variance, you’ll have to face the facts that the project simply cannot be built.

James Matthews serves as a Senior Project Manager at Permit Place, a national building permit and land entitlement solutions provider. James may be contacted at [email protected].

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