What is a Change of Occupancy?

Every building was given an occupancy classification when it was originally built. Each classification has different building code requirements that relate to the types of uses in the building and the type of construction.

A change of use or occupancy is a change in the building’s use that places the building in a different division of the same group of occupancies or in a different group of occupancies, according to the Building Code.

For example, an office building may become a day care center or a store (offices are group B, Business occupancy; a day care is group I, Institutional occupancy and a store is group M, Mercantile occupancy). Another, less obvious example of a change of occupancy, is when a restaurant that has seating for less than 50 wants to increase the number of seats to 50 or more.

A change of use is a change in the building’s use within the same occupancy group but changes the building’s occupant load or other factors that may have different building code requirements. For example, a change from a dry cleaner to a hair salon is a change within the same occupancy classification (B, or Business), but could be a change of use if the occupant load is changed.

It is important to keep in mind that the legal use or occupancy classification of the building may not be consistent with its most recent actual use. That means that a permit may be required to document the use or occupancy even if you don’t plan to make any changes to the building or plan to change how the building is currently being used. If you plan to make no changes to the use or occupancy of the building, you can request a Certificate of Zoning Compliance as evidence that the use and occupancy comply with current regulations.

A change of use or occupancy applies to the use of the building as defined by the building code but it may trigger different zoning requirements. More information about those requirements is discussed under the topic Land Development Regulations.

When is a Certificate of Occupancy Required?

Any change of use or occupancy requires a Certificate of Occupancy. A Certificate of Occupancy is required to document a change of use or occupancy classification of a building, even where no alterations are planned or required by the code. If there is no change of use or occupancy, no alterations, and the building has been vacant for less than a year, a Certificate of Zoning Compliance may be submitted for review by the Building and Planning & Development Divisions. If there is no change of use or occupancy, no alterations, and the building has been vacant for more than a year, a new Certificate of Occupancy may be required.

The time required for approval of a Certificate of Occupancy can vary, a simple change of use may go through the system in approximately four weeks.

When a Certificate of Occupancy is requested, each of the departments responsible for enforcing safety, zoning and other rules and regulations will make an inspection (such as Plumbing, Electrical, Fire, etc.).

The time involved to get a Certificate of Occupancy can vary. A simple change of use or occupancy requiring no type of waiver or appeal may go through the system in approximately four weeks for first review and one or two weeks for subsequent review of responses to comments. In other cases, where special zoning approvals are necessary or where there is complicated building history, a Certificate of Occupancy may take several months to obtain. Submittal of a clear building code summary along with responding to requests from staff for information as quickly and comprehensively as possible are the best ways to keep the process going smoothly.

The City of Galveston requires that the building code summary is prepared by a registered Architect or Engineer.

The following table provides an overview of different requirements to consider when planning for a change of use or occupancy:

Change of use or occupancy of a building Certain code requirements must be met, for example, accessibility, egress, fire, plumbing & electrical, etc.
Alterations with a value over 50% of the appraised value of the improvements (substantial rehabilitations) May require compliance with the City’s floodplain ordinance, which is intended to reduce damage from flooding.
Additions to the building Will require compliance with all building codes and the floodplain ordinance and windstorm requirements.   A structural engineer is required for windstorm resistant design and certification.
Alterations and additions to exterior May require review by Landmarks Commission in historic districts or for designated historic buildings.

Must the Project Meet Accessibility Requirements?

Residential structures are treated differently from all other structures and must comply with the Fair Housing Act. This applies to one and two family homes, apartments and condominiums. Any structure being used or converted to residential occupancy and first placed in service before March 13, 1991, is exempt from the requirements of the Fair Housing Act.

All other structures must comply with the Texas Accessibility Standards. If the change of use or occupancy involves moving a wall, changing an exit or is valued at more than $50,000 it must comply with the requirements, be registered with the state and reviewed by a Registered Accessibility Specialist both at the time the drawings are completed and again after construction is complete. Upon successful completion of the final inspection, the Registered Accessibility Specialist certifies to the state that the structure is in compliance.

When a Certificate of Occupancy is requested, each of the departments responsible for enforcing safety, zoning and other rules and regulations will make an inspection (such as Plumbing, Electrical, Fire, etc.).

The time involved to get a Certificate of Occupancy can vary. A simple change of use or occupancy requiring no type of waiver or appeal may go through the system in approximately four weeks for first review and one or two weeks for subsequent review of responses to comments. In other cases, where special zoning approvals are necessary or where there is complicated building history, a Certificate of Occupancy may take several months to obtain. Submittal of a clear building code summary along with responding to requests from staff for information as quickly and comprehensively as possible are the best ways to keep the process going smoothly.

The City of Galveston requires that the building code summary is prepared by a registered Architect or Engineer.

What are the Land Development Regulations?

Galveston’s “zoning” requirements are found in a document called the Land Development Regulations or “LDR’s”. The LDR’s spell out the allowed uses for a particular piece of property. While the building code classifications for use and occupancy address the protection of the people using the building, zoning use classifications focus on the uses of a property and its impact on surrounding properties.

The property’s location and the use of the property determine specific requirements. For example, in areas that have a parking requirement, a retail store would be required to provide more parking spaces than a warehouse.

A change of occupancy will require that the property is brought into compliance with all current Land Development Regulations including such components as signage, landscaping, parking, exterior lighting, etc.

For specific information on any property that you are considering, talk with Planning Staff in the Development Services Center on the fourth floor of City Hall.

Will the Project Require Inspections?

Inspections are required to change the use or occupancy, even if no alterations are required. This is necessary to confirm the building meets all requirements for the new use or occupancy classification. If there are no alterations proposed, you may request a Certificate of Occupancy. Once the structure has been inspected and approved, a new Certificate of Occupancy will be provided for your records.

If the structure is found to need repairs or alterations to comply with building code requirements, a building permit may be required before the repairs or alterations are started, depending on the extent of the repairs. After the repairs or alterations are completed, the Certificate of Occupancy can be requested again.

How do I apply for a Certificate of Occupancy?

Bring a set of plans with a building code summary, copy of the survey and elevation certificate to the Development Services Center, and the staff will review your application for completeness and guide you through the process of requesting an application for Certificate of Occupancy.

Steps to obtaining a Certificate of Occupancy

  1. Visit with planning staff at the Development Services Center to determine if the use proposed is allowed for the land use classification of the property.
  2. If the proposed use is allowed, engage an architect (or engineer) to prepare floor plans (if you do not have them) and a building code summary.
  3. If there are no alterations needed, apply for a Certificate of Occupancy. If all required inspections are passed, the Building Division will issue a Certificate of Occupancy.
  4. If alterations are needed (or the inspections reveal that alterations are required), then apply for the appropriate permits. You will need a building permit and the trades will need to secure their own permits. (Electricians, plumbers, and air conditioning contractors secure their own “trade” permits after the general building permit is approved).
  5. Upon completion of alterations apply for Certificate of Occupancy.
  6. After Building Division issues a Certificate of Occupancy, the building may be placed in service.

The Planning & Development Division or Building Division staff will advise you if there are issues that would require special applications for licenses or variances.

Do I Need a Registered Architect?

In Texas, private single-family dwellings, duplexes, farms, ranches, agricultural buildings or warehouses with limited public access generally do not require an architect. Multi-family buildings such as apartments or condominiums require an architect if over 16 units or two stories in height. Most other commercial buildings, including additions and alterations to existing buildings, require an architect.

For a change of use or occupancy, the City of Galveston requires a building code summary prepared by a registered architect or engineer.

You may find it valuable to hire an architect to help you with your plans whether or not an architect is required by law. It is important that your architect is familiar with a change of occupancy code requirements as well as the type of building or business you are considering.

Building Codes are intended to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the building occupants. Galveston has adopted the 2012 International Building Code and a number of related 2012 Codes developed by the International Code Congress.

For a complete list of Building Codes and Amendments to the Codes, visit the city website at http://www.galvestontx.gov

Is a Building Permit Required?

A building permit is required for almost anything with a cost of $500 or more, including all of the following: building a new structure, either commercial or residential; additions such as rooms, decks, porches, canopies or accessory buildings; building or modifying a deck or trellis, sign, fence, retaining wall or driveway; replacing a roof or siding, or portions of a roof or siding; and replacing an electric stove or water heater with a gas model.

Special permits are required for placing any fill on a property, depending on the location; permits may also be required from the Corps of Engineers. Anything which will temporarily block the sidewalk, parking lane, etc. with a construction dumpster, temporary fence, machinery, debris, etc. requires both a permit and a temporary license to use the Right of Way. Food establishments (new or altered) require additional permits from the Galveston County Health District and a special permit for grease traps.

For specific information on any project that you are considering, talk with Building Division Staff in the Development Services Center on the fourth floor of City Hall. Construction without a permit could result in a stop work order, fines, double or triple permit fees, or might result in a citation and action through Municipal Court.

What if I can’t meet the code requirements?

The City Ordinance adopting the Building Code Requirements provides for appeals of the building code requirements or interpretations of the building officials through the Building Board of Adjustment. When you submit an appeal, it must clearly show how your proposed alternative provides an equivalent level of fire safety, life safety, structural integrity, energy conservation or accessibility before it can be approved.

The Building Board of Adjustment meets monthly at City Hall. Applications for review by the Building Board of Adjustment can be obtained online, or at the Development Services Center on the fourth floor of City Hall.

What if a property can’t meet the requirements of the Land Development Regulations?

Sometimes existing buildings cannot meet parking, landscaping or other requirements of the LDR’s. State law requires the City to have an appeals board to hear such cases. In Galveston, this is the Zoning Board of Adjustment or ZBA. The ZBA meets monthly at City Hall. Applications for review by the Zoning Board of Adjustment can be obtained online, or at the Development Services Center on the fourth floor of City Hall.

What if the property is non-conforming or has components that extend into the City’s Right of Way?

Certain components that extend into the City’s Right of Way may be approved administratively. These items include, “A-frame” or sandwich board signs; architectural features such as awnings, cornices, and roof overhangs; canopies; construction items and safety fencing; merchandise displays; small residential encroachments such as porches and stairs on older homes; potted plants, public art and tree sculptures; residential accessibility ramps; subdivision improvements, subdivision or neighborhood identification signs; surreys; tables and chairs; and underground foundations.

Other encroachments or uses of the Right of Way must be reviewed and approved by the Planning Commission. The Planning Commission also reviews certain Plats and Re-Plats (subdividing or combining property); applications for “Beachfront Construction Certificate and Dune Protection Plan” and other items. Some requests such as the abandonment of a Right of Way; change of zoning; classification of a new or unlisted land use; specific use permit; street name change or a proposal to change the text of the LDR’s require review by the Planning Commission and also require City Council approval.

The Planning Commission meets twice a month at City Hall. Applications for review by the Planning Commission can be obtained online, or at the Development Services Center on the fourth floor of City Hall.

Home Based Occupations are among the oldest forms of housing. For over 100 years, Galveston has had corner stores, the model live-work unit, in which work, commerce, and housing all took place on the same property.

The building code classifies this type of occupancy as a “live/work” unit and it is in the residential occupancy group R-2, which includes other residential type occupancies as apartments, motels, and timeshares.

Can I work out of my home without changing the use or occupancy?

A Home Based Occupation is where residents use their home as a place of work. If your intention is to live in your home while operating a small business there, you will need to go through the process of obtaining a building permit, certificate of occupancy or certificate of zoning compliance to change the use or occupancy.

The building code classifies this type of occupancy as a “live/work” unit and it is in the residential occupancy group R-2, which includes other residential type occupancies as apartments, motels, and timeshares.

Building Code Requirements for Home Based Occupations:

If your home business occupies less than 10% of your home it can be permitted under the building code as an accessory occupancy within the dwelling unit. If it takes more space than that, it is a “live/work” occupancy under the building code and requires a building permit if you are altering the structure. If there are no alterations, you may apply for a certificate of occupancy. If there are alterations, a building permit is first required and a certificate of occupancy is issued after final inspection of the completed work. A certificate of occupancy is required in all cases whether the structure is being altered or not.

A live/work unit must be on the first floor and may be no larger than 3,000 s.f. or half of the area of the building; storage within the work area can be no larger than 10% of the work area. There are other building code requirements for live/work units including fire protection, ventilation, accessibility, and plumbing. For specific building code information on any property that you are considering, talk with Building Division Staff in the Development Services Center on the fourth floor of City Hall.

Zoning Requirements for Home Based Occupations:

In addition to the building code, the zoning regulations or LDR’s provide for home-based occupations. There are two categories of occupations described in the LDR’s which may be operated from a home: home-based occupations, which have minimal impact on a neighborhood and home based occupation/business, which has a slightly greater impact and is not allowed in most residential neighborhoods. In either case, the occupancy must comply with the applicable building code and zoning requirements.

Examples of home-based occupations might include computer programmer; virtual assistant; medical transcriptionist; translator; web designer; call center representative; tech support specialist or travel agent. To qualify as a home-based occupation, the dwelling’s residential character and appearance must not be changed; no signage or on-site advertising may be displayed, there may be no employees who do not live in the home, and no customers or clients may be received, except within the Silk Stocking and Lost Bayou neighborhoods. Home-based occupations are allowed in almost all land use classifications including residential areas.

A slightly less restrictive category of use is a home based occupation/business. This category might include businesses that receive customers or clients such a bookkeepers and seamstresses. These types of businesses are excluded from all residential areas except multi-family classifications. Uses are limited to office or service businesses and may not involve vehicle service or repair, a bed and breakfast, or any type of residential child care facility. Home based occupations/businesses may employ up to two persons who do not live on the property, may not occupy more than 50 percent of the gross floor area of the principal residential building and must meet a number of other requirements with respect to the appearance of the building, parking, on-site sales, deliveries; and they may not create a nuisance to neighboring properties.

In certain land use areas, such as the Central Business, Commercial, Light and Heavy Industrial, zoning restrictions on home based occupations are significantly less.

For specific information on any home occupation that you are considering, talk with Planning & Development Division and Building Division Staff in the Development Services Center on the fourth floor of City Hall.

How to contact the Planning & Development Division and Building Division:

Galveston City Hall
823 Rosenberg , Room 401
Galveston, Texas 77550

409/797-3660      http://galvestontx.gov
planningcounter@galvestontx.gov