by Bernard B. Kolodner

Zoning in Pennsylvania is governed by the Municipalities Planning Code – except in Philadelphia.  Philadelphia has a unique ordinance, procedures, and lingo attached to a “new” zoning ordinance. This ordinance became effective in 2012, but it is referred to as the “new” Zoning Code.

Under the new code, the Department of Licenses and Inspections (“L&I”) retains its gatekeeper status for all uses touching the land. Owners of real property, businesses that are tenants, and developers in the City should have an understanding of the scope of L&I.

What Role Does L&I Play in the Zoning Code?

If you want to put an existing business in a new building or a new business in an old building, be aware that L&I is authorized to classify uses on the basis of the use category, subcategory, and specific use descriptions. If L&I cannot determine the appropriate use category for a proposed use, L&I will deny the zoning permit (i.e., use permit) request. These bases all come with different levels of detail that must be demonstrated for over-the-counter permit issuance. Denial of the permit is called a refusal, and the refusal is the ticket to an appeal before the Zoning Board of Adjustment (“ZBA”).

Use categories include the typical residential, commercial and industrial designations, but the specific uses get into categories such as “Bed and Breakfast,” “Urban Agriculture,” and “Body Art.” These additional specific use categories point the owner or tenant toward other sections of the Philadelphia Code for direction. Depending on your use category designation, your business can and will be subjected to additional code regulations.

L&I sign regulations provide an example of L&I’s broad reach. You may not erect a sign, allow the continued placement of a sign, or convert any portion of an existing sign to a different type of sign, without first obtaining a zoning permit from L&I. This provision is applicable to all signs, including any sign required by state or federal law. There are exceptions, but it is important to note that you need a permit for a sign, and it is equally important to note that there are layers of exceptions. A refusal takes you to the ZBA.

In an historic city such as Philadelphia it is not surprising that historicity is factored into permits. Before L&I may issue a building permit, L&I must forward the building permit application to the Historical Commission for its review. A refusal takes you to the ZBA.

L& I’s reach into the zoning code also includes fencing regulations. The zoning requirements in the section dealing with fences apply in all zoning districts “unless specifically exempted by another provision of this Zoning Code, or unless inconsistent with a more specific requirement in another provision of this Zoning Code.” Study the details carefully because when dealing with L&I, a refusal takes you to the ZBA.

The ZBA process requires posting the property, notification to neighbors (broadly defined), and meetings with community groups before the ZBA hearing.  Approval by the councilperson for the property is also important. All of this is time consuming.

Understanding the Zoning Code and the timeframes for obtaining the appropriate L&I response and, if necessary, the ZBA’s approval, are vital if you are considering entering into an agreement of sale, a lease, etc., that has deadlines. Moreover, working with your attorney prior to entering into a contractual agreement is crucial to setting reasonable dates for obtaining the permits necessary from L&I and the ZBA and avoiding breaches of those deadlines.

To learn more about the Philadelphia Zoning Code, contact Bernie Kolodner, Practice Leader of Kleinbard LLC’s Real Estate Group at 215.496.7226 or via email at