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Citizen’s Guide to the Chicago Zoning Ordinance

What is Zoning?

As established by the State of Illinois statutes, zoning is designed to secure adequate light, pure air, and safety from fire and other dangers; to conserve the taxable value of land and buildings; to lessen and avoid congestion in the public streets, and most importantly, to promote the public health, safety, comfort, and welfare of the citizens of Chicago.

Zoning is a police power based on the right to pass laws for the benefit of the public, and to protect the character and maintain the stability for residential, business, commercial and manufacturing areas within the City.

Zoning sets standards to which buildings and structures shall conform in order to prevent neighborhoods from becoming over-developed by limiting the number of homes and apartments that can be built in a given area.

Does Zoning Follow Guidelines?

The Zoning Ordinance was passed in 1957 and controls the use of land within the city, which means all buildings and property developments are affected. It consists of guidelines, which help protect the value of residential property by preventing the development of undesirable uses. For example, areas developed for residential purposes are set apart from heavy manufacturing or other incompatible uses.

The Ordinance also sets standards which help control the size of buildings, and the type of related facilities that may be provided, such as off street parking areas. It prevents neighborhoods from becoming over-developed by limiting the number of homes or apartments that may be built in a given area. Additionally, it helps determine where buildings may be placed on a lot, and encourages developers to provide open space surrounding buildings.

Nuisances such as odor, noise and vibrations are restricted by the ordinance by requiring certain industrial performance standards.

The ordinance consists of a map and text. The map divides the city into various zoning districts. The text contains regulations, which apply to each district.

How is the Zoning Ordinance Enforced?

The Department of Zoning employs a team of inspectors who conduct daily inspections in response to citizen and aldermanic complaints regarding ordinance violations. Upon these reports, conclusions are made whether any violations are taking place.

If violations are taking place, the CODE ENFORCEMENT BUREAU mediates by taking legal action. The Bureau was established on January 1, 1994 by the Department of Zoning, and targets serious zoning cases, such as illegal conversions, home occupations, illegal junkyards, and illegal signs. It conducts weekly hearings resulting in fines, penalties and possibly incarceration if violations persist.

What are the Various Types of City Districts?

A. Residential Districts
There are eight residential districts. In R1 and R2 districts, only single-family, detached dwellings can be built.

The remaining residential districts, R3 through R8, are General Residential Districts. The principal difference among these classifications is in the intensity of the use permitted.

In the R3 to R8 districts, the ordinance limits the number of dwelling units that can be built per lot area of land, with the most units permitted in an R8 district. Zoning classifications also include Floor Area Ratio (F.A.R.) which limits the amount of building floor area that can be constructed on the lot.

The same exact building type could basically be permitted in any of the six General Residence Districts; however, the required size of the lot varies, with the largest lot required in the R3 classification. A tall apartment building could even be built in an R3 classification, but it would have to be surrounded by a comparatively large area of open land.

B. Business and Commercial
The Zoning Ordinance specifies seven classifications of business districts and four classifications of commercial districts. These classifications are also broken down into several sub-classifications according to different building bulk controls.

Classifications of business and commercial districts serve two purposes:

  • To protect neighborhoods by preventing encroachment of nuisance uses Adjacent to residential districts;
  • To separate uses which do not make good neighbors.

C. Manufacturing Districts
Manufacturing districts are classified as M1, M2, and M3. Performance standards in these districts include restrictions on such nuisances as odor, vibration, noise, fire, and explosive hazards. Restrictions are the most severe in M1 districts, which accommodate manufacturing uses producing a minimum of nuisance, and in M3 districts which are designed for heavy manufacturing operations.

D. Special Districts
A special district is a zoning district which imposes special supplemental and zoning regulations for the use and development of land within such district. These types of districts consist of unique cultural, historical and physical characteristics that positively contribute to the city’s diversity and livability. These supplemental zoning regulations are intended to reduce conflicts between new construction and existing developments. They apply in addition to existing zoning regulations.

What is a Zoning Amendment?

An individual applies for a zoning amendment to change the designation of one’s property. You can do this only when the subject premises contains 10,000 square feet of lot area; contains 100 feet of frontage on a public street, or adjoins a parcel of land which is in the same zoning district as the proposed zoning change.

Procedure for Zoning Amendment

  • The applicant submits an updated plat of survey to the zoning department.
  • The applicant submits a completed Zoning Amendment Application to the Zoning Department
  • The applicant pays the appropriate fees to the Revenue Department.

What is a Special Use?

Special uses are variations, which are allowed in certain zoning districts for uses which are unique and are determined on a case by case basis only with the approval of the Zoning Board of Appeals.

What is the Zoning Board of Appeals? (ZBA)

The Board of Appeals is a public body consisting of a chairman and four other members appointed by the Mayor and approved by the City Council. The board is empowered with the authority to permit or deny applications for special uses and other variations. Additionally, the board deciphers appeals from the rulings of the Zoning Administrator that are held monthly.

Procedure for Obtaining a Special Use:

  • Individual presents plans and a plat of survey to a zoning examiner for an official denial.
  • Individual submits an application to the ZBA.
  • The ZBA sets a date for a public hearing.
  • The applicant must notify all property owners within 250 feet of the proposed special use.
  • Interested persons may present testimony on the application at the public hearing.
  • The ZBA makes the final decision on the application.

Is There a Fee for These Requests?

The fee for applications for amendments or special uses filed by, or on behalf of the owner of the property affected is $500, payable to the Department of Revenue.

What is a Variation?

A variation is considered if there are practical difficulties or particular hardships in complying with the requirements of the Zoning Ordinance. Variations to the bulk provisions, yard requirements, off-street parking and loading requirements of the Zoning Ordinance may be allowed by the ZBA if the circumstances are unique and if the change will not result in causing harm to the surrounding area.

Procedure for Variations:

Individual presents plan/plat of survey to zoning examiner for an official denial.
The individual submits application to the ZBA.
The Board sets a date for a public hearing. The applicant must notify all property owners within 100 feet of the proposed variation.
Application for a variation must be accompanied by a fee of $250, which shall be paid to the Department of Revenue.
The ZBA makes final decision on the application.

What is an Execption?

An exception is sought for various reasons — such as to reduce required yards by up to 50% or to grant permission to maintain a pre-ordinance dwelling unit.

Procedure for Exceptions:

The applicant must comply with the Department of Zoning.
The applicant must obtain an official denial.
Application for an exception must accompany a fee of $250 which shall be paid to the Chicago Department of Revenue.
The applicant must inform immediate neighbors of the intended exception with an approved letter issued by the Department of Zoning.
A decision is rendered by the Zoning Administrator.

Is Zoning Involved in Sign Regulation?

Yes. The Department of Zoning regulates signs including billboards, by enforcing restrictions such as type, placement, square footage and size of all signs in residential, business, commercial, and manufacturing districts. Zoning works in conjunction with sign companies as well as the Chicago Building Department to implement these regulations.

How is Landscaping Involved with Zoning?

The Department of Zoning is responsible for the review and approval of landscape plans as required under the Chicago Landscape Ordinance. The Ordinance cites specifications for parkway planting and landscaping in and around parking lots, as well as requires tree plantings and landscaping for new buildings and rehabilitation projects. It also requires all new construction and major building renovation projects to plant one tree for every 25 feet of street frontage. Single family homes, two-flats, and three-flats are exempt from these particular landscape regulations.

Is Zoning Involved in the Approval of Licenses and Permits?

Yes. The Zoning Department reviews all applications to ensure that all zoning regulations are adhered to before any of the following are issued:

a.) Building permits
b.) Business Licenses
c.) Occupancy Certificates
d.) Signs
e.) Driveways
f.) Garages

If I am Seeking Assistance for Various Permits, Do I Need to Bring Any Documents to the Deparmtnet of Zoning?


For Building Permits You Will Need:

  • A current drawing of your property and a site plan.
  • An elevation drawing that illustrates building height and slope.
  • A floor plan that describes use of the interior of the intended structure.
  • A plat of survey.

For Business Licenses You Will Need:

  • A description of the type of business or nature of the activity to be conducted.

For Signs You Will Need:

  • A description of the type and location of the sign
  • The use you wish to depict on the sign
  • The dimensions and projection over the public or private way

Certification of Zoning Compliance

The Department of Zoning will issue Certification of Zoning Compliance to certify the number of lawful and non-conforming residential dwelling units when a building is sold or transferred.

The purpose is to keep the buyers from acquiring property with illegal dwelling units. The process will notify the seller and buyer as to how many lawful dwelling units exist. The ordinance applies only to residential property zoned for one family dwelling unit, two family dwelling or multi-dwelling containing five or fewer dwelling units. The ordinance does not apply to condominiums or cooperative units.

The application for Certification of Zoning Compliance is filed in Room 802 at City Hall. The fee is $50.00 and the fee is due at the time the application is filed. The entire ordinance may be found at Title 3-32-020; 3-32-040; 3-33-045; 3-33-070 of Chapter 3-33 of the Municipal Code of Chicago.

(Note: The information in this article is intended to be general in nature. Plan to discuss your particular circumstances with an attorney for how this might apply to you.)