An Insider’s Look at Zoning and Permitting in Indianapolis

The following is an article in Omblogsman, a blog series by Jim Rawlinson, Regulatory and Permitting Ombudsman at Develop Indy, a business unit of the Indy Chamber.

Friendly neighborhood Ombudsman here! Last session I went through some quick tips for general new business owners to be aware of. Today we will take a deeper dive into local regulations and permitting, which, as the Regulatory and Permitting Ombudsman, is kind of what I do.
A lot of people think zoning is a scary process best left for city planners and lawyers. To some extent that’s not untrue, but it is also a vital part of how cities develop and how businesses interact with people on a daily basis. As a business and a property owner, it is very important for you to understand your zoning and what that means.
When a city planner looks at their city, they like to have rules in place that determine what can go where. There are a lot of reasons for this: to protect residents whose property backs up to a business; to protect businesses from each other; to drive certain kinds of development in an area; to protect historic areas.
Planners try to make it so that “low intensity zones” (homes, schools, etc.) are buffered from intensive use. So if you are looking to open up an office, you can often be right next to a residential area, but there are restrictions on what you can do in that property. Businesses are allowed more varied uses in a higher intensity zone, but there are stricter rules on where these can be. Cities utilize zoning to determine “this is where we want commercial or industrial development” or “this is where this use has already been established” and, most pertinent to all of us, “this is where people live, you can’t put anything else here”.
The City of Indianapolis recently went through a comprehensive re-do of our zoning process. The goal was to update our code with a focus on connectivity, the environment, and good governance. Recognizing that Indianapolis is a large geographic area with different styles of development, Re-Zone broke the City into two major districts, the metro and the compact. In the compact, the goal is to drive more urban development, stressing density and connectivity. In the Metro, the aim is more suburban development with larger lots and setbacks from the road. These updates took our zoning structure into the 21st Century and made us a leader in some areas but we are still working to refine and update the structure as we grow.
If you have any questions about zoning, what yours is, how you change it, etc., you can get more info by calling the Department of Metropolitan Development’s planner on call, or, of course, me.
You can also check your zoning 24/7 at a handy tool we created here:
The Department of Business and Neighborhood Services manages most permitting and licensing in the City of Indianapolis. This can be anything from a Structural Permit (we technically don’t have a “building permit”) to Right of Way Permit, a Sign Permit, or a Special Events Permit. These are, like zoning, designed to promote a safe, healthy city. To close a street for an event, you need a Right of Way Permit that alerts neighbors and businesses and ensures IMPD is able to make sure the closure is safe. You need a Structural Permit to show that you are building to minimum standards so people won’t have to worry about your building falling down. You need licensed contractors and engineers to pull those permits so that the City knows that those plans are being followed competently and safely.
That’s not to say the process can’t be overwhelming and frustrating if you don’t know how it works. The Department of Business and Neighborhood Services was formerly known as the Department of Code Enforcement. Under Director Jason Larrison, they have tried to change the focus from being an enforcement agency to a service agency, but it’s more than just semantics. Director Larrison employs a number of professionals to help you get your business started quickly but safely. You are welcome to go into their offices at 1200 South Madison Avenue during the week and meet with the permits team or a plan reviewer personally. They can usually advise you on what is the best way to get what you need. We also created Open Counter Indy ( as a service that is available 24/7 to answer questions on the costs and required documentation associated with pulling permits for your business!
I’m running out of space, reader, but there is so much more information. There are multiple other permitting and regulatory agencies that you need to be aware of. Rather than going into descriptions of each of them, I’ll just add their websites and you can explore on your own. (restaurant inspections, food service licensing and more!) (State of IN Building Review, generally a requirement to pull a Structural Permit from the City)
As always, if you have more questions give me a call or email and I’ll try to get them answered as best I can! Until next time!
Jim Rawlinson can be reached by phone at 317.464.2262 or by email at [email protected].
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