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Introduction: Making Sense of Philadelphia’s Zoning System

Philadelphia Zoning Law firm real estate

In Philadelphia every parcel of land is zoned for a specific type of use. Neighborhoods are zoned for residential, commercial, industrial, and other uses. 

Whether you are building a new structure, renovating an existing building, or seeking to change the zoned use of your land, Philadelphia law requires you to apply for a zoning permit. 

Often, property owners use a property for a long time in a way that does not comply with the zoning code. In other cases, owners purchase buildings under the assumption that the land can be used in a certain way, only to find out that the use is currently prohibited.

In this zoning overview we will address how a property owner can legalize the use of a property that is not in compliance with the zoning laws. 

First, the Basics

Philadelphia zoning law separates compliance with the code into three categories: “by-right,” “by special exception,” and “by variance.”

If you are making a change to your property that complies with the zoning code, the Department of Licenses and Inspections will issue you a by-right zoning permit. For example, let’s say you own a residential home and would like to build an additional floor to the house. If your zoning code allows this type of work, you will likely receive a by-right permit and will not have to pursue any other zoning approvals.

In a different scenario, you might want to turn the ground floor of a residential building into a commercial space—such as a coffee shop. But, the zoning code for your building says that only residential properties are permitted in the area. In this case, you would have to apply to the Zoning Board of Adjustment for either a special exception or a variance.

Now that we have the basics down let’s move on to an example that illustrates how property owners can legalize the use of property that is not in compliance with code.

Case Study

Consider a situation where you are the landlord for a three-story building. On the ground floor there is a small local pizzeria, and the other floors are comprised of apartments. After looking into renovating parts of the building you realize that the property is in a residential-only zoning district. This means that the pizzeria operating out of the ground floor is not in compliance with the zoning code.

What do you do? You will need to seek a variance from the Zoning Board to bring the building into compliance. 

Along with submitting the required forms, you also need to contact the correct Registered Community Organization (RCO) in your area. RCOs have the right to be informed about any zoning matters in their district and can provide comments to the applicant. After you’ve met with your local RCO, you will attend a Zoning Board meeting where the public can provide comments on the project. Twenty-one days before the hearing you will need to post a specific public sign outside your project. 

After the hearing the Zoning Board will decide whether to approve the variance. If the variance is approved, you will be able to legalize the commercial pizzeria in your building. In total, the entire process can stretch for many months from start to finish.

There are many other cases where you might need to seek a variance. For example, a developer might have purchased a property with the belief that it was legally a three-family house, only to later find out that it is zoned as a two-family home. 

While each zoning scenario is unique, the process outlined above is generally the same. To make a two-family home compliant as a three-family property the owner will need to submit an application, go through the RCO, and ultimately obtain a variance from the Zoning Board. 


Navigating Philadelphia’s zoning laws can be confusing and frustrating. No matter how complex the problem is, we are here to help you achieve the goals you have for your property. Contact us to learn more at: 215.717.2200.  

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