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Church in R1 zoning to be a house

Visitor's Question: A church building lies on property zoned R1 in a residential neighborhood. It has always been a church as far as we know. The church is no longer occupying it. We would like to convert it to a house. Is there any problem with converting it to a home since it is R1? It was built in 1969 according to the city although the original plans say 1955.

Editors Reply:Typically this conversion would be more than fine. For our readers who may not know, R1 commonly is the short name for one of the residential zoning districts, usually the one that is most oriented toward single-family homes.

So if your town, city, or county is like most, the most familiar land use in R1 zoning is the single-family home. The church actually is the outlier, since churches probably were written in as permitted uses either a long time ago when walking to church from within the neighborhood was very common, or they were written in as a permitted use relatively recently when courts started ruling that freedom of religion meant that churches had to be give wide latitude within zoning ordinances.

Now notice that all along we have been using language such as "typically" and "usually." This gets to the heart of the matter about why we decided to answer this question.

Zoning ordinances are locally written and adopted, and there is no national or international standard code that has been widely adopted. This means that we cannot give you a final answer because you could be living where there is a really weird zoning provision.

So to really know the answer to your question, you will have to call or go to your city hall and ask. When you do this, don't volunteer a lot of extra facts. Just ask if a church now located in R1 can be converted to a single-family residence. Don't complicate the question by adding information about when it was built; if they need to know more facts, they will ask questions before giving you an answer.

The International Code Council is trying to change our statement that all zoning district regulations are local, but in our opinion, they are a long way from standardizing zoning in the way that building codes and property maintenance codes can be standardized and then adopted locally with very few amendments.

We predict you will find out that the zoning definitely will allow you to convert the church to a home, but the only way to know for sure is to ask your city before you buy the property.



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Zoning Change may NOT be that Easy
by: Anonymous

Although most R-1 zoning districts (I live in Philadelphia) will allow the "USE"-change to a Single Family, the "property and building" may not conform to the dimensional standards of the zoning code for an R-1 district, such as: minimum required rear-yard depth and area; maximum required building height limits; or side-yard and court width limits. When you change use, you will need to apply for a zoning and/or use registration permit. But that would means that you may have to comply with the all the inherent "present-day" regulations and restrictions of the zoning code. Most city zoning codes mandate such height and area restrictions. If the property or building does not comply with those code dimensional requirements, you may be issued a refusal by the city, and would need to file for an appeal with your county's zoning board and get a variance. You should investigate with your county's zoning code official as to what is your code.

Editors Comment: Yes, the last sentence of this comment summarizes well our big point here, which is that individual zoning ordinances vary quite a bit across the country, and the bottom line is that you will have to comply with the law where you live.

Yes, as this comment points out, there could be issues if the church was nonconforming in some respect with the current requirements of the R1 code. This might result in the immediate need to apply for a variance, although in some more lenient jurisdictions, the change of use in itself would not trigger the need for a variance unless and until the footprint of the building is proposed for alteration.

But in many cities and counties, there would be no new permit of any kind required if the new land use is a permitted use in the zoning district.

The bottom line is that all zoning is local. On this website we answer in terms of generalities and most common practices, but you certainly must check with your local zoning staff.

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