Avoid the Zoning Trap: Five Tips For Retailers

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Retailers looking to open a store need to know if their use is allowed in the area they are considering. When looking for a retail space, a basic knowledge of zoning will help retailers save time, frustration, and money according to Capital Retail Group, a Washington D.C. based commercial real estate firm.

Retailers know the saying, "Location, location, location." Indeed, location in the retail business is often the difference between success and failure. Considerations should include shopper demographics, visibility, and access. Just as critical are the zoning rules and requirements according to Capital Retail Group, a Washington D.C. based commercial real estate firm. Robert Tack, the CEO of Capital Retail Group, says “If zoning isn’t considered early in the search phase, a retailer may find the perfect location only to find out the use is not allowed.”

Zoning laws or ordinances define and restrict how and where a business can operate. According to Capital Retail Group, zoning typically restricts land use by type of use, structure height, and position of the structure.

Match Location and Zoning
Robert Tack states, “One of the first steps in the site selection process is to make sure you can operate the business where you are looking.” It's critical a retailer understands the zoning ordinances and regulations for the area where the business is located.

Zoning Laws: The Basics
Most jurisdictions dictate all construction or rehabilitation on private land must conform to the requirements imposed by a zoning commission or seek relief before the appropriate bodies.

How Zoning Rules Are Made
Most often, zoning ordinances are made by city or county government officials. Those officials, usually with the help of a planning commission, divide the community into districts, or zones. For example, The District of Columbia is divided into 34 zone districts.

Exceptions & Special Uses
Added to the complexity of zoning are overlay districts which are designed to balance a mixture of uses by means of incentives and requirements including retail, hotel, residential, entertainment, arts, and cultural uses. It's possible to get permission to run a retail business in a zone that normally doesn't allow retail businesses. This is done by applying for a special or conditional use permit from the local zoning commission or board. Retailers should be aware of any zoning restrictions limiting operations. For instance, a retailer may be able to open a convenience store but not be able to sell high margin products such as tobacco or alcohol.

How to Find the Zoning Laws    
Most zoning information is easily accessible for free on the jurisdictions zoning website. For example, the District of Columbia office of zoning webpage includes an excellent zoning guidebook covering everything from the history of DC zoning to the players who make the zoning rules.

Deciding on the right retail location is a big decision, and it is often stressful. Knowing with certainty the location and use follows the local zoning laws can ease some of the stress and save time and money.

About Capital Retail Group
Capital Retail Group provides a full range of brokerage, property management, and strategic advisory services to the commercial retail sector serving Washington DC, Maryland, and Virginia. Follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and our Blog.

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Robert Tack
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