Converting a storefront into a church


Visitor Question: I have a building with four addresses, 2133-2135-2137-2139 W. Manchester Ave. I want to convert 2139 into a small church. What are the steps I must take?

Editors Reply: The answer to such questions is found in your local city's zoning ordinance. Zoning is not at all standard across the U.S., so you will have to dig into your local requirements. In most cases, you can find and read your zoning ordinance online. If you have any questions at all after reading it, you will need to call the city's planning department (or other department that handles zoning) and ask.

We can give you only a little preview of the likely procedure, but since you are in a large city, the process there might be considerably more complex and involve ordinances and departments other than zoning. For example, you will probably need a fire department clearance, health department involvement, and various environmental permits if you are doing any structural work or substantial rehabilitation of the building. Any alterations to the building may also require a building permit, which may be issued by a department or division that is separate from the staff members who work with zoning.

Be aware that building configuration and conditions that have not been considered code violations before now may be required to be brought up to date since you are in effect changing land uses. For example, an old stairway may have been just fine for retail, but now that you are changing to a church, it might have to be wider or less steep.

Since you called this a business location in your original title, we are going to assume that this property is zoned commercial already. If so, there's a good probability that either some type of conditional use permit or special use permit is required for churches. The process for obtaining a conditional use permit often includes a public hearing and takes at least two months. The final authority in smaller cities often is the city council, but in very large cities such as yours, often a hearing officer listens to neighbors or other interested parties and then renders a decision.

In some places, churches already are permitted in commercially zoned districts "as of right," meaning there is no requirement for rezoning or a conditional or special use permit. In those cities, you obtain and pass whatever inspections are required, and you are free to do the conversion. This tends to be a faster process.

Some people may try to tell you that the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 meant that churches escape any type of land use regulation. That is false. That legislation prohibited regulations such as zoning ordinances from treating one religious faith different from another. But you still may find yourself with myriad rules to follow, and permits and inspections to obtain.

So reach out to the City of Los Angeles and start learning what is required. If you don't obtain a complete and satisfactory answer by phone, call again and talk to a different person or ask for a supervisor. Even in a huge city such as yours, if you are uncertain about any aspect of the process, we suggest that a visit in person to the city offices involved often yields you the most clarity, but of course try to avoid this step if you can.

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