Your Downtown Business - Advantages to Local Compliance in the Pottstown, PA region

You think that you might want to relocate or open a business, perhaps a retail store or a small office to provide professional services or sales. You would like to be in an urban setting to secure high speed DSL internet access, and you are aware that the further you go from the main switching office, the more degradation you get in speed. Therefore you are looking in Pottstown to take advantage of close proximity to the DSL high speed internet switch located at the Verizon facility.

There are issues of local ordinance that may have a significant impact upon your new business. One of your first tasks is to visit the local zoning officer to determine whether your proposed site meets the requirements of various ordinances.

Perhaps the most obvious hurdle is the local zoning ordinance. What you plan to do at the location that you have selected (in zoning terms, the ‘use’) is either permitted by the local zoning ordinance as a right or is allowable subject to discretion of the local officials. Most zoning laws permit principal uses which if allowed in the zoning area need no further approval. Each area also may have uses that are permitted by special exception, which means that a hearing would be necessary before the Zoning Hearing Board to determine whether the use will be allowed. As an example, the Pottstown Borough Zoning Code has a zoning area for Office/Residential uses, which is designed to establish and preserve quiet, single family and professional offices built to the scale of homes common in the district. It is not surprising that residences, both single and semi-detached, are permitted uses. A special exception is needed, however, to convert a single family home to a professional office.

Your plans may involve a project that is forbidden by the zoning law. In these cases, the law provides a means for requesting a variance from the zoning ordinance which must be based on a particular hardship that would occur were the variance not granted. The time, expense and risk of pursuing such a variance might very well make proceeding in this manner a poor choice.

The zoning ordinance generally also contains provisions for signs to advertise your business. The requirements as to size, lighting, placement and means of support vary from zoning district to zoning district. Again, care should be taken to check the law prior to contracting for the purchase or installation of a sign that may not be permitted.

Generally each area has its own zoning classification with permitted uses and uses allowed by special exception. It imperative that you check with the zoning officials before purchasing land or signing a lease.

If your plans include subdividing a piece of property to put your business on one of the remaining lots, you will be confronted with the Subdivision and Land Development Ordinance. This law regulates the manner in which land may be divided into smaller parcels and how development of those parcels will take place. While in the 1930s it was possible to buy one square inch of Florida swamp, today there are strict controls on the size of lots, set backs, the amount of land which may have buildings, and what parking must be provided. In the Pottstown ordinance, there are significant requirements for new development to protect and encourage our growing canopy of trees. Such requirements are not so much restrictions or stumbling blocks as they are tools for the preservation of a pleasant community, with trees and adequate parking, where people will want to come and patronize your business.

Obviously, zoning issues can be complex. A prudent person would make any contract to buy land contingent upon the necessary approvals. Again, a visit to the municipal building to meet with the codes department is a must.

Both renovations and new construction require that a permit be issued before the work may be commenced. These regulations have two main purposes. The first is to ensure that the work is performed by competent and licensed individuals and companies. The second is to ensure that any work complies with building codes. The construction of bathrooms, handicap access, and emergency exits must comply with applicable law. Additionally, businesses are protected because code enforcement officers require contractors do their work as outlined in the application. The initial permitting process and subsequent inspections protect both your business and the community against shoddy or dangerous workmanship.

The Borough of Pottstown, like many municipalities in Pennsylvania, maintains an Historic District along High Street and throughout a significant portion of the downtown. This area has special controls on the renovation or replacement of the exterior components of buildings within the area. The goal is to ensure that the historic character of the area is not degraded with inappropriate changes to the parts of the buildings that are visible from the streets and alleys. Most any change to the exterior of any structure in this district requires a Certificate of Appropriateness. The Historic Architecture Review Board (HARB) makes recommendations to Borough Council regarding the issuance of a Certificate of Appropriateness. Typical applications include replacement of windows, creating new doorways, and the placement of signs.

Pottstown's zoning ordinance, Pottstown's historic district ordinance, Pottstown's property transfer checklist, and a list of the building codes adopted by the Borough of Pottstown can be found by clicking on the following link: http://www.pottstown.org/.

The municipalities all desire to protect and improve the quality of life for all who live, play and make a living in their borders. If these controls were not in place, our quiet streets might become home to rendering plants and glue factories. Were you to locate your business in a large mall, you would have to deal with these same type of issues. The mall owner can and frequently does limit you in the merchandise you can sell or the services you can offer. You are typically required to submit designs for the interior and exterior of your premises. You are required to maintain the general ambiance that the mall owner wants. The municipalities are no different in these desires, and have a much broader base of uses to maintain.

Although these various ordinances and compliance issues may be seen as limiting constraints, there are also very positive benefits to the urban setting. Pottstown employs an Economic Development Director who is charged with assisting in locating and preserving local business. The Economic Development office can be a great help not only in finding space for your business, but also in advising as to the general market conditions, securing financing, and other details necessary to make your business a success. Additionally, the TriCounty Area Chamber of Commerce has long been a staunch supporter of the downtown area and it also stands ready to provide advice and assistance in locating downtown.

While some might consider the codes department and their inspectors to be constraints that need to be tolerated, the point is often missed that their trained professionals often serve as semi-construction managers to make sure that your project is completed properly and on time. The urban setting offers numerous advantages in services, proximity to utilities, excellent fire, police, and ambulance protection, and municipal workers who can lend a helping hand. In today’s atmosphere, where ‘urban sprawl’ is out and business district renewal is in, it’s a great time to be downtown.

The attorneys of Wolf, Baldwin & Associates, P.C. have a great deal of experience counseling businesses in downtown settings. In addition, Jack Wolf is the current President of Pottstown’s Borough Council, and Levi Wolf is the current chairman of Pottstown’s Historic Architecture Review Board. We invite you to contact us for more information.

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