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Five things you need to know about zoning in Detroit

Cafe outdoors
Cafe outdoors

Last week, Zana Tomich wrote about the exciting new stores and restaurants in the City of Detroit and the five things you need to know before you sign a lease to open a store, an office or a restaurant. Today we are going to cover an issue that you need to consider before signing the lease: determining if the property you wish to lease is properly zoned for your business, office or store in the City of Detroit.

Zoning is the way local government controls the development of land and the types of uses to which each individual property may be used. The City of Detroit has one of the largest zoning codes in the United States. With over 800 pages of regulations, and additional maps identifying the zoning districts within the City, Detroit has land use regulations that not only cover the areas in which residential, industrial, recreational or commercial activities that are built within the city, but also addresses density of buildings, signage, fences, agricultural uses and buffering between uses. Therefore, it is important to review the City of Detroit zoning code, as applied to the proposed business use, prior to signing a lease.

1. Check to see if you business location is properly zoned for business. The first thing to remember is that you should never sign a lease for a business space without first knowing that you’ll legally be able to do business there. (One exception to this is that it’s okay to sign a contingent lease, with a clause stating that the lease won’t be binding if you don’t get zoning approval.) Being forced to move your business is hard enough, but not nearly as difficult as being held liable for payment on a lease for a space that you can’t use. For answers to zoning questions, never rely on what the previous occupants of the space did. Don’t assume that you’ll be allowed to do a certain activity simply because the previous tenants did it. Review the City Land Development Code to see how the City has zoned the property. You can also send in a letter to the City Plan Department and secure a zoning approval letter. This will tell you in the use you are seeking is an approved use (permitted as of right), a conditional use (one that requires administrative or zoning approval) or the use is not permitted at all.

2. Check the parking requirements. The City of Detroit zoning code require a business, office, retail and restuarant use to provide parking. If there is already a parking problem in the area where you wish to lease space, you may have to come up with a plan for how to deal with the increased traffic your business will attract. The zoning code includes an algorthim which is used to calculate how much parking is needed for the use – whether it is an office, retail, restaurant or church. Make sure you know how much parking is required for your use, and the availability of parking, prior to signing a lease.

3. Check into the signage requirements. The City of Detroit has a very detailed signage requirement. Therefore, be prepared to look at whether signage is available, the type and number of signs, the size of signs and the appearance (such as whether they’re illuminated, flashing, colorful, or made of neon), and their placement (flat against the building, hanging over the sidewalk, or mounted on a pole). Be sure to review the sign code prior to spending money on having signs made.

4. Review what approved uses are vs. conditional uses. In general, an approved use in a zoning district is a use that the zoning code specifically allows as of right. No approvals are needed when the zoning code provides that the use you desire to have on a property is an approved use. A conditional use is a use which is not permitted as of right, but allowed in the zoning district assuming that an administrative decision, or administrative body, approves the use. Be careful that you have the proposed use for your store, office or restaurant is approved prior to signing a lease.

5. Seek a variance or rezoning if your use is not permitted in the zoning district. The City of Detroit has a mechanism available if a use is not permitted as of right, or is not a conditional use. A party may seek to rezone the property, a process that is typically handled through the Plan Commission and approved by City Council, or a use variance, a process that is typically addressed through the board of zoning appeals. Both processes require a significant approval process that requires much more detail than can be briefly described in this blog. You should contact a professional to assist you in this process.

If you have any questions about land development or zoning in the City of Detroit, Michigan, please feel free to contact the professional at Dalton & Tomich PLC to help answer your questions.

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