Building Permits Vs. Zoning Permits

by Matt Petryni; Updated September 26, 2017
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Business and property owners looking to develop a piece of land by constructing a building, rezoning an area or subdividing a parcel must apply for a permit with the local government to do so. Many homeowners and businesses may only need one permit if the proposed land use for their property is consistent with the existing local zoning laws. Understanding some of the differences between building permits and zoning permits helps shed some light on these responsibilities.

Basics of Zoning

Zoning is a type of local land use law that is designed to “protect public health, safety and welfare by regulating the use of land and controlling the type, size and height of buildings,” according ot the Philadelphia Zoning Code Commission. Historically, zoning laws limited the types of urban development that could be permitted for construction in specified areas of the local government’s jurisdiction called areas or districts. These laws have evolved over time to accommodate broader goals, such as pedestrian oriented development or historic preservation.

Zoning Permit

A zoning permit is typically used to ensure that the land use of the planned development is consistent with local zoning laws. Developers and property owners apply for a zoning permit with the local planning department, who reviews the proposed land use and checks it against the zoning table. In the City of Portland, Oregon, for example, zoning permits are typically issued for small improvements that do not require building permits.

Building Permit

A building permit is also issued by the local planning department, but ensures the planned development is consistent with the safety requirements of the local building code. Building codes require that the construction is structurally sound, properly built and safe for occupation. Building codes may also require specific installations relating to fire safety and evacuation procedures. Building permits require a safety inspection of both construction plans and the finished building by a buildings official.

Key Differences

In most cities, the building and zoning permit application process is simultaneous. This is because the planning department will verify a planned development’s land use as consistent with zoning table before they issue a building permit. The specific procedure varies according to the city. In the City of Berkeley, for example, builders of large development projects must apply for a zoning permit before they can submit applications for a building permit. In this case, the zoning permit only enforces the regulations of the local zoning code while the building permit enforces construction standards. In Portland, Oregon, as another example, the building permit includes the zoning permit automatically, so developers are not required to apply for both permits.

About the Author

Matt Petryni has been writing since 2007. He was the environmental issues columnist at the "Oregon Daily Emerald" and has experience in environmental and land-use planning. Petryni holds a Bachelor of Science of planning, public policy and management from the University of Oregon.

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