Frequently Asked Questions
(Note: these questions and answers are under review and revision)
A Building Permit (B.P.) is a document that permits construction or any change to the use of any property, as determined by the Building Code, including additions and alterations and certain accessory buildings or structures (i.e.: garages, decks, walls, fences, swimming pools, signs, etc.). Contact the Permits & Inspections Division at (804)646-4169 if you have specific questions on when a building permit is required.
Zoning Division approval is required for most building permit applications, including interior renovations. A building permit application must indicate the existing and proposed improvements to take place on the property. New buildings or additions must also include a survey or site plan (plan of the property showing the location of all improvements in relation to the property lines).
Zoning Staff does not generally review certain applications, such as electrical wiring, heating and air conditioning (HVAC) or roofing installations, which have no impact on the use of the premises. However, in certain cases, zoning review may be necessary if the building is located within the City Old & Historic District, in which Commission of Architectural (CAR) review is required.
Once reviewed, permits (if determined to comply with code requirements) are approved to authorize the requested work. After approval, and once the work progresses, it is necessary to request periodic inspections of the work in order to receive approval of the various phases and components of the construction. Inspections may be requested using our 24-hour automated inspection scheduling system (SPANLINK) at (804) 646-0770 and using the required inspection codes and instructions or by accessing our Online Permit Portal. Using the system, you can also obtain information about the review status of your permit.
Once all construction inspection approvals are obtained, your building permit may be rerouted back through agencies that initially reviewed the application to verify that other aspects of the project are satisfactorily complete and the building is ready for occupancy. After all requisite agency inspections are approved; a Certificate of Occupancy(C.O.) is issued to occupy the building.
Permits are valid for six (6) months from the date of issuance. Every time there is an inspection on the property, the permit is extended for another six (6) months. Two (2) weeks prior to a permit expiring, a letter is mailed to the permit holder and the owner advising them that the permit is about to expire and advising them of the opportunity to extend the permit without an administrative fee. If the permit expires, an administrative fee is assessed to re-instate the permit.
When hiring a contractor, there are some important tips that you may wish to consider.
- Obtain a written contract. If you have any specific requests, put all specific details in a written contract. This could include what happens if something gets broken while work is being done or a payment schedule being contingent on getting inspection approvals from Permits & Inspections Division inspectors during the construction phase. You can obtain further information and access specific items that may be included in a contract by accessing the Virginia Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation document entitled What You Should Know Before Hiring a Contractor.
- Hire only licensed contractors. Before hiring a contractor or signing a contract, it is suggested that you obtain at least 3 bids. You should obtain references and review the work the contractor performed on other property. Also, check to see if the contractor is licensed to perform the specific work you are requesting. To check on a contractor's license type and status, call (804)367-8511 or do a License Lookup and access the information online at www.dpor.virginia.gov. You can also check on disciplinary actions occurring since April 1, 2002, through the Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation. This provides information regarding the licensee, any previous or current complaint histories, and any disciplinary actions involving any licensee.
- Never pay 100% up front and never pay in cash - It is recommended that you only pay an initial down-payment of 30% of the total contract cost. As specified earlier, the contract should indicate the payment schedule so that you pay as the work progresses. Finally, hold-back 10% until the job is complete and to your satisfaction. Pay for work by either charging it to your credit card, writing a check or obtaining a money order; never pay in cash, because although a contractor can be fined or his license revoked or suspended, there is no state or local authority to order a contractor to refund any monies.
- Obtain a building permit and receive all required inspections - Make sure the contractor obtains a building permit and receives all of the required inspection approvals. A building permit is required by Virginia law and it is important not to allow any work to begin until this approval is posted on the work site. Your insurance company may not recognize or cover a homeowner's insurance claim in situations where the contractor did not obtain a permit and/or the necessary inspection approvals that verify conformance with code and industry standards.
Accessory buildings (garages, tool and storage sheds, playhouses, etc.), including prefabricated buildings, typically must be set a minimum distance from a property line. This minimum distance, known as a yard or setback, varies and is specified in the Zoning Ordinance. The required yard is dependent on a number of factors, including: the zoning district in which the property is located, the width, shape or orientation or when the lot was created or platted.
In certain districts, an accessory building not exceeding 12 feet in height may be built up to the rear and side yard property line provided it is within an area no more than 30 feet from the rear property line. Height is measured to the mid-point (the area between the eaves and the ridge) of a pitched roof. Accessory buildings on residential property that do not exceed 150 square feet of floor area do not require a building permit, as per the Building Code that is adopted by the City of Richmond. However, such buildings or structures still need to meet the normal yard (setback) regulations specified in the Zoning Ordinance.
Building or placing an accessory building too close to the property line requires that you ensure it doesn't encroach on a neighboring property or that no overhang, gutter or downspout crosses the property line. It will also, under the Building Code, require specific fire-rating adjacent to the property line and will not permit any wall penetrations (window or door openings) if it is within three feet (3') of the property line. In addition, locating the building too close to the property line may present maintenance issues; you may need to access the neighboring property in order to paint or repair the building.
The maximum allowable size of any and/or all accessory building(s) cannot exceed the main building's footprint. In addition, no accessory building within a residential zoning district can exceed twenty feet (20') in height.
Erecting or placing an accessory building or structure (fence or wall) on properties located within City historic areas also require Commission of Architectural Review (CAR) approval. It is also recommended that you obtain a survey to ensure the location of the property line(s), any easement(s) and/or underground utilities.
[ IMPORTANT - See also: "Can I build anything in the easement on my property?"]
Some properties have easements on them that allow the use of the area for specific purposes. These generally include easements for utilities (gas, water or sewer), telephone, cable and power. Since there may be gas pipes or power cables under the surface that could severely injure someone, it is very important not to dig in these areas without contacting Miss Utility prior to any construction or digging. Generally, if you build in an easement, the company or entity that has an interest or ownership in the easement, can remove any improvement (shed, fence, etc.) or vegetation (trees, shrubs, flowers, etc.) without your permission or notification. Typically, an easement is shown on the survey or plat of the property.
There is nothing that the City can do about this issue; this is a private matter between the individual parties and must be resolved in civil court. Fences and privacy walls (or certain other structures) that are on your property without your permission are a civil matter between the owners and the City typically cannot force their removal. Contact an attorney experienced in real estate or property law in matters regarding property line disputes. The property survey will typically show all improvements on the property, including fences, walls and building setbacks, that may also help assist in determining the location of your property line.
Surveys of properties, if they exist, are typically recorded with the deed to your property. Deeds can be viewed and copied at the Circuit Court Record Room located in the basement of the John Marshall Courts Building located at 801 East Clay Street (East Clay Street between North 8th & North 9th Streets) in downtown Richmond.
Yes, but you may be requested to file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request form, commonly known as an "FOIA" request, to access the file information. Within five days, the city will review the information that exists and that which can be made available. Not all information is releasable, as there are some exclusions specified by Virginia law. Depending on the nature of your request(s), the city may also charge you a fee prior to releasing the information. This cost defrays the cost to research, compile and duplicate the information.
There is typically no charge to simply review information unless it requires expansive research or the accompaniment of city staff. In some instances, the firm or individual that prepared architectural or engineering plans may have copyrighted them and, for this reason, they may not be duplicated.
Zoning Division staff, during the zoning review process, will contact you if they discover non-compliance with zoning requirements. During these discussions, they will offer you alternatives and suggestions on how the project may be amended to meet code regulations without having to obtain special approval(s). However, in certain instances, your project may require additional or special approval(s) such as an Administrative Variance, Variance, Special Exception,Plan of Development (POD), Certificate of Appropriateness approval from the Commission of Architectural Review (CAR), Special Use Permit, Conditional Use Permit or a Rezoning. In these instances, you will be advised as to whom to contact for your particular situation.
An Administrative Variance or a Special Exception is a waiver process whereby the Zoning Administrator or the Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) can grant relief from zoning requirements on your property. Either approval process is subject to specific limitations regarding the granting of these waivers, which are the result of a unique or extraordinary situation such as topography, shape of the site or some other unusual factor(s). Administrative Variances typically waive yard (setback) requirements and a Special Exception typically allows waivers to other zoning requirements of the property.
If it is determined that an Administrative Variance or a Special Exception is needed, Zoning Division Staff will assist you. Due to legal notice requirements, you must submit a complete package to the Zoning Administration Office. Both processes require that you submit a completed application and fee, two sets of a survey (or site plan), and design drawings (floor plans & elevations) showing the proposed project. Zoning Administration Staff will prepare the application for your review and approval after which it is formally mailed or filed with the BZA secretary. In the case of a Special Exception request, a public hearing (first Wednesday of each month) is held at City Hall where you must present information as to why your specific request is justified. For information on the Administrative Variance, contact Zoning Staff at (804) 646-6340. For Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) Special Exception process information, please contact the BZA Secretary at (804) 240-2124.
Zoning Administration responds to reported zoning complaints and concerns. Typical violations include the illegal use or density of property, operation of businesses without required permits, fences that are too high, auto repair operations and parking of commercial vehicles in residentially-zoned areas and similar problems. If you believe someone is violating the Zoning Ordinance, file and monitor your complaint by the following methods.
- Contacting the Zoning Division Office at (804) 646-6340.
- Writing a letter to use at 900 E. Broad St., City Hall, Rm. 108, Richmond, VA 23219.
- Sending an email to Ask Zoning.
- Submit a complaint through RVA 311
Before filing a complaint you must obtain the numeric address of the property and the specific nature of the violation. Although you do not need to divulge your name, address or phone number; in most instances it assists us in addressing and responding to your concern(s). If you provide your name, it will NOT be disclosed, because it is protected from disclosure under Virginia law. It is also important that you notify us as soon as any problem is discovered, especially if it involves illegal construction work.
Zoning Division staff will record the complaint information and forward it to zoning enforcement staff for investigation. Zoning Division staff will, if necessary, conduct a site inspection within three days of the assigned date.
If the inspection reveals a zoning violation, the Zoning Officer will send a Violation Notice and Correction Order to the property owners and/or the responsible party within two days of the inspection date. This notice gives the property owner(s) and/or violator a set time-frame, typically 30 days, to correct the violation.
At the end of this 30-day period, Zoning Division staff will re-inspect the property to verify if compliance has been achieved. If the violation has been corrected the investigation is closed. If, however, the violation still exists, the Zoning Officer may initiate court action by preparing a criminal summons in an attempt to obtain judicial remedies to force conformance. Violation of the Zoning Ordinance is a Class I misdemeanor, which means a conviction of a zoning violation is punishable by fine of up to $2,500 and/or up to 12 months in jail, per violation, or some other disposition determined by the court.
A business operated within a house or apartment is known as a Home Occupation and is a permitted accessory use, subject to certain limitations. Generally speaking, certain businesses that do not generate customer or employee traffic, manufacture or store materials or require the use of commercial-sized vehicles are permitted. A Certificate of Zoning Compliance and a Home Occupation Rules are required to be completed and submitted for all Home Occupation approvals. The Online Permit Portal (OPP) shall be used for submitting applications for Certificates of Zoning Compliance (CZCs).
In certain instances, depending on the specific type of business, some home occupations may need to be inspected. Tenants in rental property need to obtain the owners' (or authorized agent) permission certifying knowledge of the proposed business.
Current zoning requirements limit occupancy of individual apartments or houses to a no more than three unrelated persons living together as a single housekeeping unit. Certain facilities may have up 8 persons, plus staff, if licensed by the State of Virginia.