The municipal code is the operating system of a city: it defines the rules, procedures and validations that keep a city running smoothly and efficiently.
Most of the time, the system works well, and cities can grow and evolve with an amazing degree of resilience. But just like a software codebase, as contributors add patches and delete sections of code over time, inconsistencies creep in and performance slows down.
Consider the following land use codes from Pacific Grove, CA:
- Restaurant, fast food (non formula, no alcohol)
- Restaurant (formula or non formula)
- Restaurant (non formula)
- Restaurant (formula or non-formula, w/ alcohol)
- Restaurant (formula or non formula, w/ no alcohol)
- Restaurant (specialty, non formula, w/ beer and wine)
- Restaurant (specialty, w/ no alcohol sales)
- Restaurant with a drive through (non formula, no alcohol)
If you were planning to open a privately-owned restaurant that serves alcohol, which one would you choose?
Not only is the terminology confusing (“formula” means chain restaurant), but several of the options have essentially the same meaning: “formula or non formula,” “non formula,” “formula or non formula, w/ alcohol.”
Mix in codes from other categories (like “Brew pub with food service” or “Pub or sports bar with food service”), and you can see how the process can quickly become confusing.
And this is just the first step: if you’re trying to find out where you’re allowed to open a business, you will need to read through the list of permitted land uses for each zoning district, find out in which ones your use is permitted, and then cross reference these zoning districts with the zoning map.
The process is so complicated that the city City of Chicago’s Small Business Center published a how-to user guide that includes screenshots of the zoning ordinance and interactive zoning map:
If the municipal code is an operating system for the city, expecting applicants to read the code to discover where they can open a business is kind of like asking Mac users to read the OS X codebase in order to find out how to open a file.
There has to be a better way!
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 community.
Today, we’re excited to announce a new product that will help entrepreneurs navigate the zoning clearance determination, which is the first hurdle in the business registration process. Introducing ZoningCheck.
ZoningCheck asks a few simple questions — “what type of business are you planning to open?” and “do you have a location picked out?” — and displays a customized zoning map based on the applicant’s responses.
It also calculates clearances for all of the zoning districts and zoning overlays in the city, and asks use-specific questions — like whether a restaurant will serve alcohol, or whether a bakery will include retail space — that can alter the base zoning clearances, and can trip up would-be business owners.
ZoningCheck is in beta in 40 cities throughout California. The product is free for users and offered as an annual subscription service to cities.
As part of our product launch, we’re offering ZoningCheck for free for one year for the first 50 qualified cities. If you’re interested, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
ZoningCheck was supported through a generous investment from John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Our growth was also supported through the Code for America Accelerator.
Questions? Comments? Hit us up @codeforamerica.