Getting a Zoning Variance for a Wood Shop

Zoning rules may have room to bend, if you take a friendly and persistent approach. May 5, 2007

I am looking at renting a shop. I have already put some money and labor into it, only to find out today that the zoning is for local commercial and woodworking is considered light industrial. I do not think anyone near me would complain. Neighbors are a barber shop about 20 yards away and a bridal shop that has asked me to do some work for them. It is in a low rent district, so I do not think there will be any issues with the local residents.

Do you think I should or could get away with setting up a retail show room in the front and working in the back without any hassles? Need opinions from folks that have experience with issues similar. I figure it is not much difference from the guy working out of his garage saying he is a professional.

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
From contributor A:
I had the same problem, exactly. Went to the zoning board and got an exception. It wasn't too hard to do, but took a couple of months. Just make nice with everybody and ask around as to whether this might happen. If you get the sense that it's impossible, then proceed to plan B, but if at all possible, it's probably best to dot the I's and cross the T's. Otherwise, trouble may crop up later and be very expensive to fix.

From contributor H:
Ask for a variance. Zoning board will have a meeting and send written notices to your neighbors. If no one complains and you make the point, without attitude, that your business will add to the area, i.e. filling an empty building, paying taxes, and supporting local services and merchants… Agree to noise and hours of operation restrictions (8-6?). Bend a little and they normally will too. My shop is in the heart of a downtown retail district along with two other wood shops. If you're not too big a company or ego, you'll have few problems.

From contributor J:
I just went through the variance process as mentioned. I don't know how the planning commission in your area works, but mine required a survey ($900) and an application fee ($75). That's just to get the planning commission to look at my application. Then I had to attend the world's longest and most boring hearing. Luckily, we got approved. In our area, trying to fly under the radar without a license is a bad idea. It can result in your business getting shut down and fines.

From the original questioner:
Thanks for all the replies. I am going to cut my losses and run. Variance can run around 1800 dollars and take approximately 4 months. Chances are it will not get approved. Chalk it up to lessons learned and move on.

From contributor J:
If you have a good location that's affordable, you shouldn't throw in the towel so fast. I would talk to the planning commission and see what they say. The people who work there can give you an idea whether you're wasting your time or your situation has potential. I'd also talk to the neighbors and try to get their support. When I went before the planning commission hearing, there were other business owners there who were seeking variances. One guy's neighbors came to speak on his behalf. His request went right through. It could cost you a little time and a good bit of money, but that's the cost of doing business. I'd just hate to see you throw the baby out with the bath water. I'd love to have a good location but here on the MS coast, what Katrina didn't destroy quadrupled in rent.

From contributor A:
I agree with contributor J. You could try some of the following. (1) See if a "temporary use variance" is as expensive as a permanent variance. (2) Try getting the landlord to pitch in. (3) Call the head of zoning board and tell them that you would like to rent the building but you are not willing to pay $800 - period. Sometimes they are desperate to fill buildings and will listen to reason. (4) There may also be a business redevelopment board or committee for the area trying to fill these old buildings and they can help if you bend the right ear. At a minimum, this puts them all on notice that they have caused "death by government."

From contributor J:
I forgot to mention one thing. I'd contact the county commissioner that is responsible for the area that you want to place your shop in. See what their take is on your business going into that space. In our county, the planning commission is only an advisory board. The county commissioners are the real approval authority. Empty buildings don't generate as much tax base as thriving businesses do. Politicians understand that. Don't quit!