Zoning is an odd duck. Zoning is unique among codes because you might not be able to build. Period.
Every other code will allow you to proceed if you can show compliance, which is generally just a matter of money - more of it.
With zoning, no amount of money can buy permission to proceed if you don't meet the requirements. Sometimes you have to wait a year before re-applying!
Traditionally, zoning investigation was not the architect's responsibility. It is not in the scope of Basic Services. Many public bodies think they are exempt from zoning requirements. (I don't agree.) And many private entities are oblivious. In both cases, you will find that no one is going to look at zoning, if you don't.
You want to know about zoning because you are sure to be considered the culprit if something goes wrong - no matter what the contract or tradition says.
We used two strategies.
To oversimplify, zoning 'permits' certain uses, 'allows' others conditionally, and 'regulates' other requirements:
If you have a landscape architect or civil engineer on the design team, you might delegate the zoning issues to them. My experience is that you will still have to spend time reviewing the zoning ordinances yourself, if you want to make sure of compliance. The LAs are too willing to recommend exceptions, which are time consuming and not guaranteed of approval. The civil engineers are, well, engineers; and the first idea they have that meets zoning will be the last idea they explore.
To assist us in doing the zoning investigations, we developed two documents - a checklist and a standard format for the report. (Click the links to download.) These are both good starting points, but every project has its unique issues that need to be sussed out.
Here's what these documents look like...
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