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Thread: Zoning letter hell

  1. #1
    Cyburbian rosierivets's avatar
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    Zoning letter hell

    I looked to see if this has been discussed elsewhere but couldn't find anything. Please merge if I missed something.

    How do you handle the dreaded “zoning letter” request? You know, those requests for zoning information on legal non-conforming status, rebuilds, code compliance, etc.?

    As a practice, I have always tossed the form letter versions which ask me to cut and paste in their own words and just fill in the blank. I have also always refused to answer the question as to whether or not a property is in full compliance as it is not possible to know this without completing a full site plan review based on current conditions. I cannot tell Joe Blow whether the apartment complex built in 1968 fully complies with height, setback, density, etc. requirements of today since these requests for zoning letters do not typically include recent surveys. Furthermore, I do not believe that most municipalities are staffed to be able to complete this type of full review for every re-fi call that they receive. I’m much more comfortable answering all questions to the best of my knowledge using my own template and stating something along the lines of “while there are no known violations, this letter does not constitute a full site plan review and non-conformities may exist”.

    I’m always happy to provide responses to requests for public records, but sometimes the appraisers are so lazy. The line between providing good service in compliance with sunshine laws and being used is blurry!

    I’m curious how the rest of you handle these requests for information. I’m also always intrigued when a bank or appraiser sounds pleasantly surprised to find out that we don’t charge for “zoning letters”. Do some municipalities do that? And are those communities which offer a full site plan review on existing sites to more accurately judge whether there is compliance with current ordinances?
    How about you take a gander at making an executive decision for once, huh?

  2. #2
    Cyburbian beach_bum's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by rosierivets View post
    How do you handle the dreaded “zoning letter” request? You know, those requests for zoning information on legal non-conforming status, rebuilds, code compliance, etc.?


    I’m always happy to provide responses to requests for public records, but sometimes the appraisers are so lazy. The line between providing good service in compliance with sunshine laws and being used is blurry!

    I’m curious how the rest of you handle these requests for information. I’m also always intrigued when a bank or appraiser sounds pleasantly surprised to find out that we don’t charge for “zoning letters”. Do some municipalities do that? And are those communities which offer a full site plan review on existing sites to more accurately judge whether there is compliance with current ordinances?
    We charge 50 for each letter, and will send a zoning/code enforcement officer out do to an inspection, I tell them it takes a couple of days for that. Typically the officer looks at the landscaping and other hardscaping elements because they tend to have the most issues. If they want just the uses and whether or not the property is in compliance with the permited uses by zoning I can turn that around in a day or so. I find that if you charge they are more hesitant to ask and may do much of the research that is easily done on your website themselves.
    "Never invest in any idea you can't illustrate with a crayon." ~Peter Lynch

  3. #3
    Chairman of the bored Maister's avatar
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    I never fill in the blanks on the forms they provide; they seldom ask the right questions or demand too many definitive statements. We charge $50 for zoning compliance letters and I'll typically spend an hour to do a site inspection and search the archives for a site plan and check to see if there's any outstanding enforcement issues. When I write their letter it has lots of CYA weasel-speak in it....no zoning code violation were observed at the time of inspection....as the structure in question was built prior to 19xx it is not known if it complied with all applicable codes at that time....
    People will miss that it once meant something to be Southern or Midwestern. It doesn't mean much now, except for the climate. The question, “Where are you from?” doesn't lead to anything odd or interesting. They live somewhere near a Gap store, and what else do you need to know? - Garrison Keillor

  4. #4
    Cyburbian btrage's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Maister View post
    I never fill in the blanks on the forms they provide; they seldom ask the right questions or demand too many definitive statements. We charge $50 for zoning compliance letters and I'll typically spend an hour to do a site inspection and search the archives for a site plan and check to see if there's any outstanding enforcement issues. When I write their letter it has lots of CYA weasel-speak in it....no zoning code violation were observed at the time of inspection....as the structure in question was built prior to 19xx it is not known if it complied with all applicable codes at that time....
    Ditto what Maister said. Except we only charge $25.
    "I'm very important. I have many leather-bound books and my apartment smells of rich mahogany"

  5. #5
    Cyburbian Joe Iliff's avatar
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    Lots of communities charge for these letters. I've been on both sides of this, having to both ask for them and draft them. What you have described sounds like how most jurisdictions handle those requests, that is not backing themselves into a corner by stating anything too definitive, other than what the current regulations are. I consider zoning or regulatory verification to be different from property condition or plan review. That gets more into code enforcement issues, and are much more complicated to address since the circumstances of each property matter, and conditions can change quickly.

    Of course, Houston has a zoning verification letter for every property in the city limits posted on their website. You can just download it yourself, without having to ask them to prepare one. I'm sure someone will post that Houston Zoning Code once I post this.
    JOE ILIFF
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  6. #6
    Cyburbian otterpop's avatar
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    We usually receive these requests over the phone. We do not charge, but now that I see other jurisdictions do - I think I will suggest we do.

    Usually the call comes from a realtor (we are grateful they even are checking ) Banks or title companies will sometimes call because they are doing a closing, and of course they call the day before the closing. That way we get blamed for being uncooperative and anti-business.

    What we do is take their information, do some research, then write a letter. A copy of the letter goes in our files, so we know what we told them and not what they said we told them. We always put it in wrting to cover our asses.

    Our county is mostly unzoned, so often that is all the letter says. If they are in a special zoning district, the letter includes a copy of the zoning regs for that district.
    "I am very good at reading women, but I get into trouble for using the Braille method."

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  7. #7
    Cyburbian zman's avatar
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    Gee, I have not seen one of those in a couple years (thumbs up!)
    You get all squeezed up inside/Like the days were carved in stone/You get all wired up inside/And it's bad to be alone

    You can go out, you can take a ride/And when you get out on your own/You get all smoothed out inside/And it's good to be alone
    -Peart

  8. #8
    Cyburbian fringe's avatar
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    I usually see such queries as exercises, always back-burner compared to what is currently on the stovetop.

    I am careful to make clear that my opinion is just that, and is limited by info provided. Am careful to avoid issuing anything that might be used as a stick against me and/or the governing body.

    Queries that are too broad just get refered to the ordinance, which is posted online.

  9. #9
    Cyburbian Plus
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    We have a 1 page application form and charge $25.

  10. #10
    Cyburbian Richi's avatar
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    In my experience of having to request them, I note that most departments that I have dealt with charge a fee. It's only reasonable to ask for such specific information. We also sent (fax and now email) a letter requesting specific information. Some locations take the questions and paste them into the response letter along with the answer. I see no issue with that. Saves retyping.

    If you charge for a "zoning letter" few will be upset. In faxct many would be OK with paying more for express service. ie: for $30 we can respond within a week, but for $60 you will get your answer in two days.

  11. #11
    Cyburbian Joe Iliff's avatar
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    Two other thoughts about zoning verification letters that come to mind. One rule I've followed for a while is that I need the request in writing. I want to be able to match up what they asked for with how we answered. It's too each to get confused over the phone. Second, I usually offer to fax or e-mail the letter as soon as it is done, following up with the original via mail, for someone in a hurry.
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    Martin Luther King, Jr.

  12. #12
    Cyburbian mike gurnee's avatar
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    KS car dealers need a zoning compliance form before getting a state license. I used to fret about this, wanting to re-write the entire thing. Now I just sign them if the zoning land use classification is correct.

  13. #13
    Cyburbian stroskey's avatar
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    We don't charge for these letters. It was talked about but our director said providing information is our basic job duty so we shouldn't - seems logical in my mind.

    If someone asks for a letter I don't see how it could take too long to unless you have far too many rules and regulations. We don't even take a trip out to the site - we can just tell if a place complies based on the use, not the setbacks, etc. Anything pre-1970 probably won't meet current setbacks so we have a form letter stating the use is either conforming or non-forming and what would happen if it burnt down.

    No landscape checks, no setback measuring, etc as we primarily go based on use. It takes maybe 15 minutes to send out the letter.

  14. #14
    Cyburbian mike gurnee's avatar
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    Stroskey, required parking for a change in use immediately comes to mind. However, I do agree with you for the most part. I suppose it depends on the level of commitment the letter bears, and the reason for the inquiry.

  15. #15
    We do now charge $250.00 for these letters (previously $100.00 prior to 9/07) but we spend time doing as thorough research as possible for each property inquiry. This includes providing information on current tenant(s) and copies of their Occupancy Certificates, providing history on building permits, Conditional use permits, site plan information, information from Zoning enforcement about any violations they may have logged, explaining any non-conformities if any exist, along with all of the general information we can pull from our files, both recent, and historic. This takes a few days so we do email and/or fax a copy once it is ready and then send the original in the mail.

  16. #16
    We get these letters from corporate zoning compliance companies. They basically want copies of everything, or a dissertation on why you can't provide the specific information they requested. They also tend to want it shipped back to them the day you receive the check. (In these cases, our fee is $500.)

    They also like to call themselves planners. Yeah, right.

  17. #17
    Cyburbian
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    Quote Originally posted by Gedunker View post
    We get these letters from corporate zoning compliance companies. They basically want copies of everything, or a dissertation on why you can't provide the specific information they requested. They also tend to want it shipped back to them the day you receive the check. (In these cases, our fee is $500.)

    They also like to call themselves planners. Yeah, right.
    We are in the process of raising our fees to $750 for these types of requests - this wouldn't even begin to cover the costs of research and a response letter.

    Until the fee is raised, we've been able to stave off most of their corporate requests by saying that we don't have the staff or resources to comply and can't answer their request. They then ask for copies of plans and we say that we can't release them because they are copyrighted. I've had to sick my attorneys on them several times for flat out harassing us.

    These guys aren't the worst, though...the local real estate/brokerage community takes up 50% of our time asking stupid zoning questions and flood plain questions. I love it when you get a call from a broker who is at a closing and she's screaming at your voice mail to call her back becasue she needs flood plain information POST HASTE...as if her failure to perform due diligence is my fault?

  18. #18
    Cyburbian Plus dvdneal's avatar
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    I feel bad, we only charge 60 for the form, but we don't verify as much as the rest of you. We can verify only the zoning aspect - that it is zoned correctly and meets setbacks, etc. We can also verify that there are no code complaints at this time, but don't do anything for building codes or inspect the site for actual code violations. I've always looked at our form as useless because I can give you the same information over the phone, just not "verified".

  19. #19
    Cyburbian Masswich's avatar
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    I don't get these letters too often, but when I do I write something very generic like "The use appears to be conforming to today's zoning code" and "There do not appear to be setback or landscaping violations." Then I add a disclaimer at the bottom that basically says my letter doesn't mean anything. But it seems to satisfy them...

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