ZoningCheck: Easing the zoning clearance process

ZoningCheck is a legal web app to help business owners navigate zoning regulations.  It’s a winner of one of the grants from the Knight Foundation’s News Challenge from last year.

It’s an Open Government app, that processes local city codes into searchable, navigable experiences online. Rather than going in person to a government center, a business owner can search for their city’s code, find the rules that apply to their (prospective) business and property plans, and find what regulations & process will apply to them.

It’s in Beta for a limited number of cities, only in California.  The design is ultra-simple & clean.  It has four clearly demarcated steps: choose your city, your business type, your prospective location & then see if your business type would be permitted in that location or not.

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Here’s a write-up from ZoningCheck’s team about their ideas & development.

ZoningCheck helps entrepreneurs find a home for their next business – Knight Foundation.

July 23, 2014, 8 a.m., Posted by Peter Koht and Joel Mahoney

Peter Koht and Joel Mahoney are co-founders of OpenCounter, a winner of the 2013 Knight News Challenge: Open Gov. Below, they write about their work and the launch of their latest project, ZoningCheck.

To most citizens, zoning is invisible: We’re aware of it in the abstract, but it doesn’t seem to affect our daily lives. But if you’re an entrepreneur trying to open a business, zoning has a direct and immediate impact on your plans and your pocketbook.

Thanks to the support of Knight Foundation, we’re announcing a new product that will help entrepreneurs navigate the zoning clearance process. We call it ZoningCheck.

Here’s where it will help: Like the computer code that powers our laptops and mobile phones, the legal code that runs a city is dense and difficult to understand. There’s a lot of jargon, references to other documents, and all the narrative tension of a phone book.

Large corporations navigate this complexity by hiring site selection experts and attorneys to read the legal code for them. Small business owners, on the other hand, are often left to their own devices.

For example, let’s say you’re trying to open a bakery in an up-and-coming neighborhood. First you would need to get a copy of the city’s zoning map, and find out how your location—if you even have one picked out—is zoned. Then you would need to dive deep into the code to look for a list of approved land uses for that location. This list of uses can include quite a few arcane business types (“wool pulling and scouring” is one of our favorites in San Francisco) while being noticeably silent on more modern operations, like co-working spaces or food trucks—let alone a maker space.

In addition to picking the right use, our baker will have to learn about issues such as zoning “overlays” and special districts, and “conditional” rules. A bakery isn’t just a bakery if it includes a retail component, and it might not be permitted in a downtown area if it operates a wood-fired oven.

Confronting this level of ambiguity, entrepreneurs often will resort to a trip to city hall to talk to a planner, which can be an enlightening conversation, but usually involves a fee and a five- to 10-day turnaround for a formal response.

Enter ZoningCheck. This tool asks a few simple questions, such as “what type of business are you planning to open?” and “do you have a location picked out.” It also  displays an interactive map of how the municipal code would process this hypothetical application. ZoningCheck turns a five- to 10-day process into a five- to 10-second process.

At OpenCounter, we believe that small businesses play a critical role in building strong local economies, and that governments can do more to help entrepreneurs get started. Our main product — opencounter.us — does this by guiding applicants through the business permitting forms, and calculating the costs and processing time to register the company. By moving the process online, we make an important city service available 24/7, and give municipalities a new level of insight into economic trends in their communities.

ZoningCheck expands this experience. It is built on open data and existing regulations. As part of our product launch, we’re offering to configure and host ZoningCheck for free for one year for qualified cities. If you work for a town or city and are interested in joining our public beta, please email us at beta@zoningcheck.us.

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