This is the first in a series of articles about the no less sexy, but often overlooked side of opening a new business: construction and its legal processes. Sexy because, if you work through each phase as it’s meant to function, you could win smooth passage and likely a more attractive, profitable business. At the very least, you’ll have the knowledge to play by the rules− and when you’re a startup, breaking them isn’t always something you can afford.
Let’s say you want to replace a used bookstore with a new pub —”The Unexamined Life,” we’ll call it— and you’ve got all your commercial ducks in a row, (location, loans, branding, target market, etc.). I am here, your humble guide, to tell you that your ducks could be disorganized and that there is potentially a group of men and women all but drooling over your ducks with a big, cartoonish, and overhead-oriented meat cleaver.
They are the Area Commission.
And if you aren’t prepared, they will eat your fat, investment-lugging ducks alive. This article is here to prepare you.
I should winnow down the persons whom this panel affects. If you were laying down plans for a pub on what was previously a pub, you would skip over the Area Commission’s approval. The group serves only those entrepreneurs who want to change a building’s original zoning with a variance. A variance is less than a change in zoning (a church to a casino, for example), but significant enough that it will alter, however subtly, an area’s dynamic, like our little scenario.
The establishment of what could be a band of assassins to your dream is actually pretty innocuous and, I think, a good idea. An area commission is no more than a group of community members who want a say in future commerce.
Since there are few if any requisites for appointment to the commission, those deciding whether your pub can open could range from an active and knowledgeable city planner to a detached and cloistered humanities professor (who is no less intelligent; only less informed in terms of zoning and building— please don’t send emails).
So despite having researched and prepared answers to even the more arcane concerns, your tone of voice or the politician you endorse on your bumper might bring the nay gavel down hard on all the good “The Unexamined Life” stands for.
Here’s the trick: you work with them.
In the change from retail store to pub, the group wants input and it’s in your interest that they get it. They are, after all, some of your most conveniently located patrons.
Instead of cawing at your political views, an area commission member will probably vote in accordance with her self-interest. If she owns a competing pub, you probably won’t win her over. Luckily, you only need a majority.
Area commissions are all different in that they represent different communities and, therefore, have distinct aims and opinions. However, because they each operate under their own bylaws, their roles are sometimes legally different. My advice?
Get to know them before you buttress your spiel with self-advertisement and defense. They could very well be nothing like you predict.
The best way to work together is to contact them early and be willing to incorporate their interests into your shtick. This way you get your approval votes, but, more importantly, you get anywhere from seven to 21 spokespeople who are excited about your pub because it’s slated to carry out portions of their dreams, too.
Not only will it make you money once you’re doling out tankards of ale, but you’ll save a great deal because after the Area Commission, which is only an advisory board, come the Board of Zoning Adjustments and (maybe) City Council, who charge you for their brocaded seal and who are more often influenced by your Area Commission than not.
If you do this early, you’ll save a lot of time, of which there is little when you’re spending money and getting no income because your pub’s still nakedly without approval.
(Click map to enlarge)
For the legalese on area commissions, you can refer to Title 31 of the Columbus Code of Ordinances here. This is a great resource if you want to learn how to establish an area commission (not all neighborhoods have one) or you’re interested in law.
Otherwise, I suggest directing questions early and often to members of your area commission and getting comfortable with them before you start prophesying your business vision. Although Area Commissions don’t hold official power, they can help persuade the city that votes for “The Unexamined Life” are worth giving.
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