Permitted Uses on Nonprofit Property

Visitor Question: Our nonprofit owns and is located on property that was formerly charter school property. Initially, the land was zoned with a special use permit for education.

We would like to rent out spaces in our buildings on our property. However, we are unsure if, being zoned as we are, the person renting could run a commercial business there. Can anyone help me understand what is and isn't allowed under a special use permit for education?

Thanks very much.

Editors Reply: No one here can tell you that, but we will help you understand how zoning works.

Each municipality, county, or township that has a zoning ordinance writes its own ordinance and amends it over the years so that actually the ordinances (laws) look quite different from one another. We will use the term city as a convenience, but it could be your county or even your township that has the zoning ordinance. Your first task is to figure out which one, if you don't know. If your property is inside the city limits of a city, town, or village, it typically is the city that has a zoning law.

Then it follows that you need to ask the city staff, if they have full-time employees, your question. If there is no full-time staff, ask the mayor or leader of your city council. They should know or be able to find the answer to your question. But insist that they also provide you with the written text of applicable parts of the zoning ordinance and the particular special use permit that was once granted on your property.

You mention a special use permit. Some zoning ordinances set up a system for applying for and receiving a special use permit. If the city is using the term correctly, a special use permit simply means that the city will allow usually one defined "special" or unusual land use on the property. Sometimes the special use permit allows a range of uses, which is what you want, but more often the uses are quite narrow.

We strongly suspect, but would have no way of knowing for sure, that a special use permit for education would not permit commercial uses. (In fact, you should make sure that your nonprofit's office is permitted under the special use permit.)

If you find that commercial uses are not permitted, you will need to consider rezoning or possibly applying for the removal of the special use permit if the underlying zoning of the property would allow your office and also leasing to commercial enterprises. The underlying zoning does not go away when a special use permit is granted, so your property might be zoned some type of commercial or residential.

The city's zoning ordinance will set up a process for rezoning, and also with any luck at all will give you and the city staff the process for removal of a special use permit. You might need both actions undertaken on the same timeline. The ordinance might not be completely clear on how to handle your situation, but the city staff, elected officials, and attorney will need to come to an agreement on a process you could pursue.

Incidentally, many cities now have their zoning ordinances online, and if your city is one of them, you could do a little reading before you approach city officials. If you don't know what zoning district (category) your land falls under, find out that first by asking the city or consulting a zoning map if it is online or on the wall in your city hall. Then read the section of the ordinance that describes that zoning district. Also read the section on procedure for changing zoning if you think you will need that, as well as the section on procedures for special use permits.

Be aware that rezoning, or changing or removing special use permits, almost always requires completing an application, paying an application fee, waiting for a spot on a planning commission agenda (since the city will be required by law to give a certain number of days notice to neighbors and the public), a public hearing at the planning commission before it makes a recommendation, and then a separate later public hearing before the city council, which makes the final decision.

Occasionally the planning commission only has the power to modify a special use permit, but if you find this to be the case, just consider yourself lucky.

Before you pursue removal of the special use permit or rezoning, become very clear about what your nonprofit plans to do with the property. Although in theory zoning is supposed to be neutral as to actual specific uses, often planning commissions and city councils ask very pointed questions about your plans. Be ready.

So while we cannot answer your question, these are the ways to think about and approach solving your zoning problem. If you need more background, look at the zoning section of this website and specifically the zoning regulations and rezoning opposition pages.

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