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Thread: Help with "Research laboratories" defined & placed

  1. #1

    Help with "Research laboratories" defined & placed

    Hi all,

    This is my first post to this group *ever* so bear with me as I dive right in...

    Our P&Z Commission recently opened up a can of worms (that promptly got routed to me...funny how that goes) about the appropriate zoning district placement of "research laboratories." The gist of the issue is, given the potential that chemical, biological, or radiological hazards may be present in these facilities, should "research labs" be allowed to be placed next to or in the vicinity of residential districts.

    There is general agreement by all parties (P&Z, Chamber of Commerce, planning staff, etc) that "medical and dental laboratories" (i.e. those doctor/dentist labs that serve as accessory uses) should continue to be allowed in "office" zoning districts. However, consideration being given to the proposal that more intensive research labs (such as those that might have greater concentrations of or pose a greater risk in the types of chemical, biological, or radiological hazards) be placed in either a "research park" district or an "industrial" district.

    While there may be a legitimate need to perhaps move these potentially hazardous labs into a zoning district other than "office," there has been some concern expressed by several labs in our community that they do not wish to be forced into a "general industrial" or even a "light industrial" district. Their reasoning is that their "research" activities are probably more compatible with the activities that occur within a hospital district or "research park," for example, rather than in an area that is doing "heavy manufacturing."

    So my questions are these:

    1) Has this "research laboratory" issue come up in your community? If so, how did you address this issue? That is, where does your community place labs that work with hazardous biological, chemical or radiological elements? What threshold "triggers" the requirement that a lab be placed in a "research park" or "industrial" zone as opposed to an "office" zone? Feel free to post links to on-line zoning ordinances if you have them. I'd love to have a look!

    2.) Does your city or county have a good working definition of "laboratories," "research laboaratories," "process laboratories," etc.? I have a few, including one from the APA's Glossary of Zoning, Development, and Planning Terms (PAS #491/492) but have had little success looking for additional definitions on the Web. I'd really like to avoid getting too technical, but it looks like I may be heading in that direction
    Again, internet links to your zoning ordinances would be very helpful!

    3) If labs which deal with hazardous materials are placed into a higher zoning district, what is to be done with *existing* labs that fit this definition that are presently located in "office" districts (other than making them non-conforming uses, of course)?

    4.) Finally, I am seeking recommendations on how I can differentiate/separate out "photo labs" (i.e. one hour photo labs commonly found as accessory uses in drug stores or Wal-Marts or as "stand alone" businesses) from laboratories that deal with more noxious uses. Right now in our city, theoretically these 1 hour "photo labs" are regulated the same way as a lab that does research on anthrax, or mustard gas or whatever.

    Whew! Thanks in advance for the input! I am looking forward to the discussion and will be checking in periodically to add additional information if need be.

    Eric the Red
    Columbia, MO

  2. #2
    Aug 2001
    Tallahassee, Florida
    In my opinion, attempting to "zone" on the basis of what materials are used within the lab will be next to impossible to enforce. How will you know what they have inside? New materials will come into play in the future and I dare say code enforcement will not have a clue.

    Either put them in industrial (light or heavy) or a research park catagory or implement performance standards designed to provide good separation between structures. I don't think it's a planners job to get into details of the safety or operational factors on a research lab. However one does hope that the environment where they are located has adequate emergency response conditions and a way to prevent concentration of either "nasty stuff" or people in close proximity to the dangerous stuff.

    As to photo labs- why not just define them as not being labs?

  3. #3
    Cyburbian mike gurnee's avatar
    Feb 1998
    Greensburg, Kansas
    Hi Eric
    We hadn't thought of this issue either...until now. I would place "research and development laboratory, handling of hazardous materials" as an office district conditional use in the table of premitted uses. But then you need some threshold of how much hazardous materials is OK and over that volume takes special permission. Chat with your HazMat people for guidance. I prefer that conditional uses have specific standards rather than be up to total discretion by the board.

    As a conditional use, the board in public hearing could ascertain the potential for disaster and methods to mitigate those possibilities. Existing labs would become non-conforming.

    Medical/dental laboratories could remain a permitted use in your office zone, and film processing permitted in commercial and office districts.

    I just saw cracker's comments, which make good points. It is quite possible that a medical lab could expand into some really nasty stuff as well. Businesses are supposed to report storage and use of hazardous materials to the fire department--chat with your chief...you may find a non-zoning way to solve the problem.

  4. #4
    Cyburbian Cardinal's avatar
    Aug 2001
    The Cheese State
    Your first post is a tough one. As I read it I first thought to restrict the use to industrial districts, but then you mentioned medical uses associated with hospitals. It got me thinking. What about mobile x-ray or CAT scanners? What about labs associated with univiersities? Or, like your photo lab example, what about small facilities attached to a larger use? The range of potential "labs" is so great I am not sure it would be good policy to restrict them all to a certain district. I would suggest an approach of allowing them as a conditional use within most business and institutional districts.

  5. #5
    Cyburbian Emeritus Chet's avatar
    Aug 2001
    South Milwaukee


    We just had our first case of "research / bio-tech lab" come before our Plan Commission. Fortunately, our Code stips that 'unclassified uses' appear before the Plan Commission for a "Determination Of Use" i.e. where-do-I-fit.

    Our Commission decided that, rather than wave a broad brush stroke for bio-tech / lab firms as permitted in XXXX - District, each application would be reviewed based on thier specific operations. (The one we reviewed was determined to be permitted by right in a General Business District, but the owner almost talked himself into a Conditional Use!)

    While this doesn't answer your question, Eric, maybe its an alternative you also have?

  6. #6

    Help with "Research laboratories" defined & placed

    Hi all,

    Thanks for the replies thus far. Definitely a number of excellent points to think about. Please continue to post your responses; I have been checking back regularly. Just a few comments on the posts so far...

    I agree with "cracker" who stated "attempting to "zone" on the basis of what materials are used within the lab will be next to impossible to enforce." Definitely a nightmare and one I will be sure to avoid as I begin to write up an ordinance.

    Cracker further states "I don't think it's a planners job to get into details of the safety or operational factors on a research lab." Again, I totally agree...I only wish the Planning and Zoning Commission felt the same way.

    Mike Gurnee and Michael Stumpf had similar suggestions: "...place "research and development laboratory, handling of hazardous materials" as an office district conditional use in the table of premitted uses." Interestingly, the City of Columbia actually already does this---In fact, this is what triggered the whole "research lab" debate. (Due to a "glitch" in the City zoning ordinance, research labs are allowed as a conditional use in "general office" districts, but not "planned office" districts. Staff was trying correct this "glitch" when we inadvertently opened Pandora's Box as the issue came before the P&Z.) Apparently, the P&Z doesn't think allowing "research labs" as a "conditional use" in office zoning districts goes far enough in protecting nearby residential uses and they are therefore pushing to have these labs moved into a higher zoning district, such as "research park" or "industrial."

    The "Determination Of Use" concept proposed by "bturk" is an interesting concept. We'd be heading into unchartered waters here but its an idea definitely worth looking into. Just to clarify, this "Determination Of Use" process is one that could be applied to both "Planned" and "open" (unplanned) zoning districts?

    Finally, does anyone have a good definition of a commercial photo developing laboratory (as a primary/"stand alone" or accessory use) I can pilfer? I promise to take good care of it

    Eric the Red

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