Many bed and breakfasts are opened in private homes, and since many communities have zoning ordinances which regulate the use of private property, aspiring innkeepers need to investigate whether the current zoning allows for this type of business. Failure to adhere to local zoning laws can result in fines and other legal complications. Some bed and breakfasts have opened only to be shut down by their local government.
Aspiring innkeepers should raise the issue of zoning first, before going any further. If there's a problem, you may have a variety of options to pursue, but should find out before investing any unnecessary time and money.
Zoning laws and regulations generally are enacted locally and control the use of private property, although not all communities have enacted zoning regulations. Zoning involves dividing the community into various districts, such as those for agricultural, residential, commercial, industrial and public uses. A zoning map should be available at your local municipal office.
Depending on where your potential B&B property is located, it may be necessary to discuss zoning matters with township, municipal and/or county officials. (It might help to consult a local attorney who handles zoning issues first.) If zoning rules have been adopted, a review of the law must be done to determine whether a B&B establishment is permitted.
The zoning law should describe the procedures necessary to request a change in use (from a home to a B&B). In those cases where a B&B is a permitted use, usually very little is required to affect the change other than a zoning permit application.
Zoning inspectors normally approve changes in use that are consistent with zoning laws. If the application is denied, the owner can appeal to the Zoning Board of Appeals. In some cases if the appeal is turned down, then an alternative is to file for a variance.
In some communities, the zoning law has provisions for "conditional use permits." Applications for conditional use permits go directly from the homeowner to the Board of Zoning Appeals.
Each conditional use permit is considered on an individual basis. The zoning law normally contains both general and specific standards for conditional uses. Approval of the B&B as a conditional use then means it must meet general and specific standards.
In the cases of appeals, variances, and/or conditional uses, the zoning law specifies procedures to use, usually including the filing of an application, scheduling of a public hearing, giving proper notice of the hearing, holding the hearing, and making a decision. It's not unusual for the process to take up to three months or even longer. An appeal of the decision from the Board of Zoning Appeals must be made to the Court of Common Pleas.
Beyond the appeal, variance and/or conditional use, the only resource to zoning changes is amending the law. Zoning is not rigid; it should be updated on a periodic basis. However, this doesn't mean that just because you want to open a B&B, the laws should be changed. Anyone thinking about a bed and breakfast in a community where it is not permitted by zoning should realize that changing the zoning laws is a very long process, if it can be done at all.
The major problem today associated with getting approval of a bed and breakfast in many communities is the local zoning law. Since many of these laws were written before B&Bs became popular in the United States, many do not contain a definition of a bed and breakfast. In some cases, local zoning officials have permitted B&Bs as long as they meet the standards defined either for boarding houses or tourist homes. A number of communities have or are in the process of amending their zoning laws to clarify this issue.
In communities where B&Bs may not be allowed or there are other problems, it's highly recommended that the owner seek legal help from someone who is experienced in local zoning regulations. The administration of zoning regulations is complex and requires a lot of attention to detail. In many cases the decision of whether to permit a bed and breakfast lies in the ability of the potential owner to convince local officials that the establishment of a B&B would be an asset to the community.
Eleanor Ames wishes to acknowledge Ed Smith, who wrote the original factsheet this article is based on.
This series of worksheets and information was originally written by Eleanor Ames, a Certified Family Consumer Sciences professional and a faculty member at Ohio State University for 28 years. With her husband, she ran the Bluemont Bed and Breakfast in Luray, Virginia, until they retired from innkeeping. Many thanks to Eleanor for her gracious permission to reprint them here. Some content has been edited, and links to related features on this site have been added to Eleanor's original text.