For cities hailing businesses to bolster tax revenues, the courtship can be paradoxical. Cities launch campaigns, initiatives and incentives, only to bury potential prospects in tangles of regulatory paperwork and planning regulation. The process can be deal-breaking.
To ease the burden on officials, required to regulate, and on business owners, who must navigate city codes, one civic tech startup has released a new question-and-answer tool that maps open zoning areas based on an applicant’s interests. The tool, called ZoningCheck, comes from OpenCounter, a Code for America Accelerator company and Knight Foundation grant recipient.
The tech is an iterative next step to its stack of business application services, and it walks users through a four-question process. Users are prompted to choose a city to start a business, pick a business type, select a location from an address or map — and if the area clears municipal codes — are immediately directed to OpenCounter’s application process. Peter Koht, co-founder of OpenCounter, said the ambition is to democratize business applications.
“We’re building tools so that the same level of access to city rules and regulations is there whether you’re Walmart or Joel’s pizza shop,” said Koht, who, along with fellow co-founder Joel Mahoney, released the beta version of the site selection and zoning lookup tool on Friday, July 18. The two intend to offer it for free to 50 qualifying cities for a year as the product is fine tuned. Yet, even in beta, ZoningCheck includes business zoning information for 30 cities, many of which are already OpenCounter service subscribers.
Koht said the targeted beneficiaries of the app are entrepreneurs, real estate developers, architects, and of course, city planning departments hoping to hasten staff response times to requests and zoning inquiries. Koht argued that many cities that have deployed online business application sites still require an hour or more just to submit one business application. For a planner processing that application, depending on workflows, it can take days. The new process expedites and automates procedure within a four-page site.
“The data tells us that the majority of people who interact with the city are actually small-business persons, and those are the people you want to encourage since they anchor commercial neighborhoods, they employ locals and are, essentially, the backbone of your local economy,” Koht said.
As an early endorser of ZoningCheck, the city of Pacific Grove, Calif., has already incorporated the platform into its business application process. Kurt Overmeyer, Pacific Grove’s economic development manager, said that prior to ZoningCheck, inquiries were handled through manual lookups of parcel maps and cross-referencing municipal code printouts.
“Zoning has a huge impact on startup costs and project complexity, and is a key element to a community’s economic future,” said Kurt Overmeyed in a ZoneCheck release. “ZoningCheck speeds that process up significantly, allowing staff to focus on other community impacts of proposed developments.”
Headquartered in Santa Cruz, Calif., OpenCounter has enjoyed notable adoption from similar state jurisdictions since it launched in 2013. Koht said the tool has gained attention out of state in localities such as Oregon and Texas with contract discussions happening in additional states as well.
Jurisdictions interested in participating in OpenCounter’s free one-year beta trial can email Koht and Mahoney at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.