Certificates of Use and Converting Use Building Permits: A Brief Overview

With the hope to eliminate the confusion that surrounds the process to obtain a Certificate of Use, we prepared this short narrative. Please take some time to read it, as we believe it will save you time, money, and frustration.
Before we start, let me say (because this is where we see people get in trouble) since the fire and building codes do not have “one-size fits all” health and safety requirements, it is important to understand that just because a business used the space before you and the Zoning is okay, does not mean your business use of a space or building will not require updates. These updates may require hiring a design professional (architect or engineer) and contractors to bring the space into code compliance for your use.
What is a Certificate of Use?
A Certificate of Use, often referred to as a COU, is a Zoning certificate that confirms the space the business occupies complies with three items: 1) local Zoning ordinances, 2) the Florida Fire Prevention Code, and 3) the Florida Building Code. For some in depth reading on the Certificate of Use check out the City of Jacksonville’s Municipal Code Chapter 656 Subpart E.
Zoning
Zoning approval is usually straight forward:  Is the proposed use compatible with the Zoning of the property? Some common issues that can make Zoning approval more complicated include meeting the required parking for the proposed use, alcohol sales, or even outside dining. Be sure to disclose the full scope of your proposed use when discussing these items with the Zoning team. You do not want to find out a week before you hope to open that you need to rezone your parking lot (a process that can take five months or more). For more information regarding Zoning requirements, the Zoning team can be reached at Zoning@coj.net or 904-255-8300.
Occupancy Classification
Before the Florida Fire Prevention Code and the Florida Building Code can spell out what is required to maintain the minimum health and safety standards for your space or building, the State of Florida requires that you first define your Occupancy Classification. This is determined by your proposed use. For example, a restaurant is typically an Assembly occupancy classification; a car repair shop a Storage occupancy classification. Occupancy Classifications are even divided into groups to further define the health and safety requirements depending on the use of the space. 
The occupancy classification is so important and determines many less obvious requirements. It is highly recommended a Florida licensed design professional be involved.
If your proposed use for a space or building matches the last certified occupancy classification group for the space (“certified” meaning all proper permits were pulled to ensure code compliance for that use) the verification of compliance with the Florida Fire Prevention Code and Florida Building Code for your COU is simple. We can simply verify compliance with records in our system.
Often the proposed use will not match the last certified use and this is when things become more complicated. Because the fire and building code have different requirements for the various occupancy classifications and groups within those occupancy classifications, a converting use building permit will be required to be obtained and finalized prior to the approval of the Certificate of Use.
Converting Use Building Permits
A converting use building permit is a separate process from the application you submitted for the Certificate of Use and will document and certify the Change of Use for the space/building. Florida law will require you hire a Florida licensed design professional to prepare permit documents, such as a set of plans, that will detail your use of the space/building and then demonstrate how it complies with the health and safety requirements of Florida’s fire and building codes. As you can see, these are state and not local requirements.
Even if no work is required to be performed to convert the use of the building or space to a new Occupancy Classification or even to a different group within an Occupancy Classification, a converting use building permit will be required. That said, many times work will need to be performed. If work is required to be performed, again per state law, you will need to hire a Florida licensed contractor to perform this work. This may include items such as adding a non-structural wall, updating A/C systems for ventilation, adding drinking fountains or mop sinks, or even adding new exit lighting. All of these items require a contractor.
Evaluating a Space/Building Before you Sign a Lease
As a new business owner, you have already done your research to include all of the costs to open your business. Please do not neglect to count the cost of what it may take to bring a space/building up to the minimum health and safety standards the state requires for your business.
Consulting with a licensed design professional, contractor, or even a company that specializes in obtaining Certificates of Use before you sign a lease on that dream space can save you from renting a bag full of problems.
These professionals specialize in understanding the building and fire codes and can help you translate your goals, dreams, and budget into the permits and documents required to navigate the Certificate of Use process. As with hiring any professional, always talk to multiple firms, check references (and prices), and take any other steps necessary to ensure the person you are hiring is the best fit for you and your business.
Small Business Help
The City of Jacksonville understands that small business is critical to health and success of any community. To that end, the City has a webpage providing information to those opening a small business in Jacksonville. You can find that page at this location: https://www.coj.net/smallbusinesshelp.
At the webpage, you can also find information on how to attend a Small Business Help session, where we will bring together City staff from Zoning, the Fire Marshal’s office, and the Building Inspection Division to answer your questions about the Certificate of Use process and whether or not you will need to also obtain a converting use building permit.