How to Cope With Zoning Boards

By day they're ordinary citizens -- doctors, firefighters, lawyers, barkeepers. But when the sun goes down, watch out. They gather at city hall and undergo a remarkable transformation.

Emboldened by the power of authority, they turn into something most terrifying: the local zoning board. Their strength is awesome. Whether they call themselves a design-review board, a historical-preservation commission, a homeowners association, or just plain "zoning," they can say yes or no to what you do to your home -- from the height of your white picket fence to the color of your front door. And if you're not careful, they can drive you wild.

The following is a guide to help you navigate the bumpy road to getting your project through your local bureaucracy.

1. Before You So Much as Think About Spending Any Money, Chat Up Your Neighbor.
The prospect may seem worse than a trip to the periodontist, but you must tell your neighbors what you're doing -- and be ready to change your plans to make them happy. After all, these are the people whom zoning boards are there to protect. "I have seen a number of cases before me where neighbors end up fighting a project simply because they weren't consulted in advance,'' says Seth Weisman, an Atlanta real estate and land-use lawyer. "If the applicant had gone to his neighbor with his hat in his hand, they would have, in all likelihood, agreed to the project.''

2. Go Down to City Hall and Talk to the Zoning Staff.
And don't forget to bring your most basic questions. "Do I need a permit?" "What is a backyard setback?" Answering these sorts of queries is a big part of the zoning staff's job. Even the simplest additions can land you in hot water if you don't have a handle on the rules. Some years ago, Joseph and Marilyn Turner of Pittsburgh wanted more privacy and decided to build a stockade fence. So they paid their gardener $1,200 to build a fence like one they'd seen in the neighborhood. Big mistake. As surely everyone in the Pittsburgh zoning office knows, you can't build anything larger than a three-foot fence without a variance. The Turners had to dismantle it and begin again.

If you find that you need a variance, don't be shy. Ask the city's zoning staffers for advice on getting your application approved. They can be helpful in ways you never imagined. "In this town, the board is always going to say no if you use the word 'apartment' in your presentation," says Dave Keating, zoning enforcement officer in Darien, Conn. "So I advise people never, ever to refer to an addition as an apartment. Call it 'mom's wing' or 'the addition,' but don't call it an apartment." Keating also strongly suggests that applicants visit one or two zoning board meetings to see which sort of applications fly and which ones don't. If you see board members turning thumbs down on a proposal that looks like yours, you'd better think about a backup plan.

3. Get Professional Help.
Hiring an architect and a lawyer could make your task infinitely simpler. You don't necessarily have to work with them from start to finish. Some people bring in professionals only to help them plead their case before the zoning board. A few years ago, self-employed contractor Chris Noe twice went before the Darien zoning board with what seemed like a reasonable request -- and was rejected both times. Part of the problem: his drawings. While his sketches were professional-looking, they didn't include how he intended to use each room. Nor did they show how his design would accommodate a backyard creek that sometimes floods. He had the answers in his head, but that wasn't good enough. "The board sees that kind of stuff and says, 'What's going on here?' " says Keating. Architectural drawings aren't cheap. Noe probably would have had to pay a couple of thousand dollars at least. But an architect would have known what the board wanted.

4. If the Board Turns You Down, Don't Be Afraid to Appeal.
If you don't like the zoning board's decision, in most towns you can turn to the zoning board of appeals. But don't expect an easy ride. Judith Corbitt locked horns with the Los Angeles Zoning Board after an acquaintance narced on her for running a business out of her home -- verboten in L.A. A cease-and-desist order shut her theatrical costuming firm down. But she refused to accept the decision, and set out to fight it.

After a prolonged trek through the bureaucratic jungle, she won a temporary ruling from the zoning board of appeals allowing her to continue to run the business. But it took a year and a half and $20,000 of her own money. "Of course, it made me some enemies on the zoning board," she adds.

Now she's fighting to have the actual zoning rules changed. "All the zoning law in L.A. is doing is turning its entrepreneurial citizens into scoff-laws," she argues. If your plans run afoul of your community's rules, but you think the rules are wrong, you can set out to change them. But you may be setting yourself up for a long battle. "Once you start with this, you have to be willing to stick it out," says Corbitt.