Special Use Zoning for Businesses

Zoning issues can make or break a small business in Chicago, and business owners should be familiar with the zoning process before renting or buying property. Chicago’s Zoning Ordinance divides the city into districts with designations such as commercial, business, residential, and manufacturing, dictating where and what types of businesses can be located in each district. Only certain businesses are authorized within each district. These designations are discussed in the city’s License Zoning Reference Guide, along with a description of the allowed zones for each and whether businesses are permitted by right or require special use approval.

Special use approval means that a business must complete and submit a separate application to the Zoning Board of Appeals (“ZBA”). The ZBA will review the application and hold a public hearing to determine if allowing the business to operate in the area is appropriate. If the special use application is approved, the business will be allowed to operate out of the location and receive its municipal business license, assuming there are no other issues.  The process is rather convoluted, so we’ve broken it down into four stages.

  1. Receive an official denial. In order to start the special use application, your business must first be denied for a standard business license. Business owners can apply for a business license at the Business Affairs and Consumer Protection office in City Hall. If the proposed location’s zoning is not proper for the business, the Zoning Department will issue an official denial. You will need this official denial to complete the remainder of the special use application.
  2. Complete and submit the application. The application requires several supplementary exhibits and affidavits, which are listed on a checklist included with the application. These documents include:
    1. Project Narrative: A description of what the applicant is looking to achieve with the special use application and why they need the special use approval.
    2. Application Fee: The current fee for the special use application is $1,025 (subject to change).
    3. Form of Affidavit: This affidavit, included in the application, asserts that all of the materials are true.
    4. Notice Letters to Neighbors: The most onerous task is sending out notice letters to all property owners within 250 feet of the proposed location. The applicant must include a copy of this notice letter, the addressed mailing labels, and a signed affidavit (separate from the one previously listed) declaring that they sent the letters in the application. There is a sample letter provided in the application.
    5. Economic Disclosures: The Economic Disclosure form requires the applicant to disclose any potential conflicts of interest with elected city officials or department heads. The applicant must also list all owners of their company and any other people who have an economic interest in the company. is can be filled out online on the City of Chicago website. If the applicant rents the property, the property owner must also fill out the economic disclosure.
    6. Site Plan, Landscape Plan, Building Elevations, Floor Plans and Plat of Survey: These are technical documents of the property that will most likely need to be prepared by an urban planner or contractor.
    7. Color Photographs: Photographs of the building must be current and in color. The photos must all be originals taken by the applicant or an agent of the applicant.
    8. Signed Authorization of Property Owner: If the applicant is renting the property, the property owner must provide authorization to the applicant to apply for special use approval.
  3. Post Public Notices. Once you submit your application to ZBA, the zoning office will provide you public notices, which must be posted on the building within five days and visible to all nearby streets. The applicant must then turn in an affidavit stating that they installed the signs and provide evidentiary pictures to the zoning office. Once the zoning office receives the affidavit and pictures, they will schedule the applicant to appear at the next available ZBA public hearing. The ZBA holds public hearings every third Friday of every month. These hearings fill up rather quickly, so it is important to turn in all application materials as soon as possible to reserve the next available spot.
  4. Appear at the ZBA’s public hearing. Finally, the applicant is required to appear before the ZBA at a public hearing at City Hall. An urban planner or certified real estate appraiser must testify on the compatibility of the proposed special use with the particular zoning district and the business’s ability to promote the public good. At the public hearing, objectors to the proposed plan can testify for their position. It is crucial to prepare responses to any objections.

Aldermen may also prove an obstacle on your road to special use approval. Some Aldermen choose not to get involved, but others may appear in favor of or against the special use at the public hearing. Aldermanic opinion carries significant weight in the ZBA’s decision, so approaching and establishing a relationship with your Alderman is a good strategy. Whether they support or oppose your application, doing so will help prepare you for your hearing.

The City of Chicago suggests using this interactive zoning map to determine the zoning requirements of your proposed location before signing a lease or buying a property. If you are contemplating entering into a lease, G & G Law can help you ascertain if the potential property is zoned properly. Our attorneys can also assist you with the application and approval process, a notoriously complex process. Contact us today to see how we can help.

Alongside zoning, you may also need to secure a business license from the city. Check out this article for information about how to determine if you need one and for some insight into the process.

Chicago also recently established separate zoning requirements for cannabis businesses (including dispensaries, craft growers, transporters, and infusers). If you are interested in zoning issues related to cannabis, we wrote an entire post about it. Check it out!