Getting into the zone


National Report - Getting your practice, or what you hope to be a future practice, properly zoned can be a nightmare - but it doesn't have to be.

NATIONAL REPORT — Getting your practice, or what you hope to be a future practice, properly zoned can be a nightmare — but it doesn't have to be.

New York-based veterinarian Dale Skrabalak entered the lion's den of city planning earlier this year, when he requested a permit to set up a home-based outpatient veterinary clinic in a Johnson City residential property.

"I was taken aback by the misinformation that was perpetrated. People thought the clinic would be a nuisance to the neighborhood and asked such silly questions as, 'Will the dogs be muzzled when coming to the clinic?' and 'How will [the dogs] get inside without menacing the neighbors?' " says Skrabalak, PhD, Dipl. ABVP. "They had their own ideas of a veterinary clinic."

The Johnson City Planning Board denied Skrabalak's request at a September meeting before an audience of about 40 area residents seeking to keep their neighborhood business-free.

In hindsight, Skrabalak says he should have gone door-to-door to speak with the neighborhood and address their concerns before the planning board voted.

However, city law also posed a problem for Skrabalak. Zoning statutes require that he live and work in the home, with living quarters being the property's primary function. Concerned the veterinary clinic would take up too much of the residence, City Planner Daria Golazeski's recommendation to deny the application was unanimously supported by the board, according to published reports.

Despite his experience, Skrabalak says others should not be intimidated by the zoning process. "Many people are afraid of change, and a veterinary facility is a change. Do your research of the neighbors, talk to the planning director prior to submission of your application and have that person review it and see if it portrays what you are attempting to convey to those involved in the process," he says. "Lastly, make sure your facility is totally in compliance with local zoning laws. I was in compliance, but gray areas seem to have been misinterpreted."

Many veterinarians face zoning boards to seek permits each year. While the task can be daunting, a little know-how can make it easier. Zoning officials from two large cities offer the following advice on avoiding the most common zoning-process pitfalls:

  • Be patient. The process can take anywhere from a few weeks to around four months, so being on a tight deadline can hamper progress. "People who come in and are on a timeline for the next day can receive a rude awakening when they are told how long it may really take," says Robert Brown, director of the Cleveland (Ohio) City Planning Commission.

  • Do your homework. Before you buy any property or begin the zoning-permit application process, make sure the parcel is properly zoned — according to current law — for its intended use, Brown says. When zoning laws change, existing businesses are grandfathered in and permitted to continue operating until they leave the location. Once a new owner steps in with a new use for the building — such as a veterinary practice — updated zoning laws are applied to the property.

  • Communicate. Local zoning commissions act as an oversight group for city councils, and they typically offer a recommendation on all projects. Meeting the commission before a formal council hearing "can help the process along to prevent it from failing down the road. They will be honest. They'll be the ones to tell you, if necessary, 'no way, you'll never get this through city council,' " says Mark Loflin, vice-chair of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Zoning Commission in North Carolina.

"While city council makes the final decision, the [zoning] commission acts as the advisory board and filters a lot of the big issues, so when a project does get to council it is a good, streamlined plan, and they can decide quickly."

  • Hire an architect. "The rendering is very important. It is difficult for people to see what a building looks like until they have a visual, because often they can't imagine size, scale or mass of the building," Loflin says.

Even when planing to use an existing structure's current layout, a floor plan needs to be submitted, Brown says. "Under most zoning codes, the city will need to see the use of the interior space, where bathrooms, offices, entrances and exits will be," he says.

  • Inform others. Most jurisdictions require a zoning-permit applicant to notify the owners of properties surrounding the area. The most difficult cases are when an applicant is in or adjacent to a neighborhood, Loflin says.

"Be up front with other property owners. Meet with them, especially if you are getting ready to do something adjacent to a neighborhood," he says. "Be flexible. Listen to what they are saying. Try to make them see it as a benefit or that it won't be obtrusive to the neighborhood. Main concerns are usually noise and traffic."

  • Budget for costs. Utilizing an existing structure will be much more cost-effective than building a structure from scratch. "In many places, the cost of a permit is related to the cost of total construction. It is a formula, and fees can range from thousands of dollars to tens of thousands of dollars," Brown says. "For example, building a skyscraper will take much more time from the city than converting a hardware store into a veterinary office. Most often the fees are based on the construction cost."

Related Videos
© 2024 MJH Life Sciences

All rights reserved.