Can a church meet in a building that is zoned industrial?

by Mary

Visitor Question: I am a member of a local church congregation (less than 100 people) that has been meeting in a school gymnasium.

Due to Covid-19, we are at present not allowed to return to the school and are looking for a meeting place to rent. We have found a building that is a suitable, size, layout, price, location, and has adequate parking but is zoned Industrial. The owner seemed willing to discuss a rental agreement; however, she believed that a church was not allowed to meet in a building with that zoning. In my research I did not find this to be true (and know of other church congregations who have rented and purchased industrial space); however, I am unfamiliar with the zoning regulations of this particular township. Is this an issue that is up to the local zoning board? Can a church meet in an industrial zone?

Editors Reply: The key question you asked is whether this issue is up to the local zoning board. Yes, the local zoning board recommends zoning classifications, but the township elected leaders make the final decision. At least that is how it works in 99.5 percent of U.S. locations. Zoning truly is decided on an "every government for itself" basis.

By now I hope you realize that everything we say in the rest of this response will need to be subject to your verification locally, as the possible variations are infinite. But in general, the township will not decide if a church use can be carried out in an industrial zoning district on a case by case basis. This will be spelled out in the zoning ordinance. So a first course of action for your congregation could be looking at a copy of the actual zoning ordinance for the township. If the township has a staff member or department that deals with zoning, talk to that person if possible. If not, at least read the ordinance for yourself. (Many are online, but some must be accessed in a library or at the township office.) Usually you would determine the precise zoning district in which the building is located (since there could be more than one industrial zone), and then find in the ordinance the rules and regulations for that zoning district. Most are not difficult to read, once you find the correct chapter or sub-heading.

It is fairly common for religious uses to be permitted in a wide variety of zoning districts. Sometimes instead of just being permitted outright, a particular permit is required. This might be called a special use permit or a conditional use permit. Most often, the process of obtaining this permit is exactly parallel to a rezoning. This would entail one or probably two public hearings, notice of which would be given to nearby neighboring property owners and by posting of a sign on the property. So this is going to take one to three months, which probably will not be ideal for your situation. Occasionally we see a process whereby a city staff person can give the permit, based on an administrative hearing or some other type of considerably shorter process.

Your first step would be contacting the township officials to learn your exact situation. If congregational meetings in industrial buildings are common in your part of the country, you may well have an excellent chance, but there is just no way of predicting this until you find the exact regulations.

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