Verbal zoning approval is not approval
Verbal approval from a zoning administrator or Planning Commission is not the same as approval of a zoning permit and introduces unnecessary risk.
Two stories were shared with MSU Extension recently and both involved casual verbal zoning approvals instead of a written permit. In both cases, the zoning administrator or Planning Commission used a phrase something like “Go ahead, I (we) don’t have a problem with it." In both cases, this was the response to a legitimate question from a property owner asking if zoning approvals were needed to start a home business. Given the verbal approval, both property owners moved ahead, started a business, purchased inventory, made small investments to property, put up a small sign, etcetera.
In one case, the Planning Commission advised the person “It’s fine until someone complains. That’s how we’ve always done it.” After she started her business, the neighbors complained. More than a little bit. After receiving the complaints, the Planning Commission realized that they had nothing in their zoning that would allow them to approve the business that had already started. In response to pressure to follow the law, the township began an ordinance amendment process to allow for this kind of use. The process began with a meeting room filled with those same angry neighbors. The original person requesting the business was too intimidated to show up at any of the meetings to advocate for her business. Her neighbors have allegedly asked her to move.
In the other case, the zoning administrator granted verbal approval for a similar home business in an agricultural district. When the Planning Commission found out about the business, they asked the zoning administrator (the same one that gave verbal approval) to take enforcement action on the homeowners for operating illegally. Shutting down this quaint farm boutique became front page news. It’s a little gray on whether the landowners unwittingly left out a few key details or the zoning administrator didn’t ask; either way the business did not meet written zoning standards and was previously given a go-ahead with verbal approval. This landowner was given 30 days to close the business and presumably sell the acquired inventory.
Simply put, verbal approval breeds unnecessary risk to all parties involved and should always be avoided. There are a few exceptions, however, but even then providing some copies of documents is wise. Many ordinances define a threshold for needing a permit, items under that threshold, such as a small shed, may not need a permit. Certain activities are preempted from local zoning such as oil and gas wells. An increasingly common example of a land use not requiring a permit is a home business that bears little or no evidence of a business (i.e. no sign, no customers or employees, no hours of operation). Each ordinance can define these limits slightly differently. The only time verbal approval is sufficient is when the ordinance or other law can back it up. It would be wise for the person requesting information to obtain or be shown in writing (or the zoning administrator provide) a copy of the zoning section on its threshold for permits, other ordinance, or other law that releases them from needing a zoning permit.
It may seem easier in the moment to verbally approve a request without consulting the ordinance. This is not good zoning practice; it is not even zoning. “It seems okay to me” is not a legally defensible zoning standard. If verbal approvals are the norm for a community, MSU Extension has many land use related training programs to lead to better, less risky, decision making. Those in Michigan State University Extension that focus on land use provide various training programs on planning and zoning, which are available to be presented in your county. Contact your local land use educator for more information.