Defining Accessory Uses A Three-Step Work Sheet

Defining Accessory Uses A Three-Step Work Sheet



Complaints about red tape in the processing of zoning requests are frequent. Developers and citizens are frequently frustrated by the time required to process simple requests. Local governments should streamline processes where possible.

Accessory uses are incidental to the principal permitted use in zoning districts. Typical accessory uses include storage sheds in the rear yard of a residential lot. Home occupations are other examples of frequently requested accessory uses. Zoning ordinances often do not include a list of accessory uses. They seldom provide a guide in determining whether a specific proposal should be considered an accessory use.

The determination of whether the application is an accessory use is usually delegated to the Zoning Officer who may or may not be empowered to grant approval. Some ordinances provide that the Zoning Board of Appeals determine accessory uses, some designate the Zoning Enforcement Officer and some are silent on the matter.

This article seeks to establish a three-part test which can be used to determine accessory uses. A worksheet is provided which can be used to guide local government decision making. The article also seeks to streamline the approval process, and reduce time and frustration for applicants and enforcement personnel. An Example Situation

To illustrate a typical situation, consider the following. A local landscaping service has a retail sales and service yard located on a commercially zoned lot abutting the main commercial street in your community. Like a lot of landscaping businesses, it has expanded to do tree trimming, lawn mowing and other home maintenance chores throughout the community. With the expanded business, the service has hired more residents, especially high school and college kids, during the summer months.

With a fleet of vehicles, it was a natural need to have a radio communication system to keep in contact with all the work teams circulating with within the community. Approval of a radio tower as an accessory use was granted to help the successful growth of the business, some time back.

Today, an application for a cellular communication tower designed to replace the approved radio communications tower has been filed. The application states the new tower is an accessory use to the business, because it is needed to communicate over a larger service territory. It will also be leased by a cellular phone company to provide mobile phone communications services.

Defining Customary And Incidental

The critical issue of this situation is defining whether the circumstances, the location of the tower for the use by the landscaping business, is customary and incidental to the landscaping business and secondly, whether the use of the tower as a cellular communications tower is customary and incidental to the landscaping business.

To help answer the question, the following questions can be asked:

1.Is the accessory use to be conducted on the same lot as the principal permitted use? In this situation, the use of the tower for radio communications for the landscaping business is clearly accessory to the landscaping business operations. It can be concluded the use of the tower for cellular communications is not an accessory use because no other cellular business operations are located on the site.

2.Is the proposed accessory use customarily found in connection with the principal permitted use? It is not unusual for a landscaping (or similar business) to have a radio tower for communications purposes and it can be concluded that the tower, when used in this manner, would be considered an accessory use. However, it is more difficult to find a communications tower jointly used by a landscaping business and a cellular communications business. Therefore, it can be concluded that the use of the tower for this purpose, because it is not commonly found and does not have any direct relationship with the landscaping business, would not pass the test as an accessory use incidental to principal use.

3.Is there unity of ownership between the principal and accessory uses? For this question, clearly the ownership of the tower by the landscaping business for their use meets the guidelines and the leasehold interest of the communications company does not. Therefore, the tower would be an accessory use for the landscaping business but not the communications company.

The Decision Use of the three questions provide guidelines for the analysis of this complex situation. Findings of fact gathered from the above analysis include:

1.The location of a radio communications tower for use by the landscaping business is an accessory use of the landscaping business. The tower is located on the same zoning lot as the business, a radio communication system is commonly found in use by other landscaping business and related type businesses and the tower is owned by the business.

2.The use of the tower by a cellular communications company is not an accessory use. The tower is not on the same zoning lot as any principal communication company use, use of a tower for such purposes is not usually located with a landscaping business and the tower is not owned by the cellular communication company.
Therefore, the community would approve the tower for use by the landscaping business but prohibit the use of the tower for use as a cellular communications tower.

A Simple Work Sheet The work sheet, displayed below, can be used to help evaluate accessory use applications and become part of the application file documentation. If answers to all three questions posed in the work sheet are yes, then there is substantiation for the claim that the proposed use is accessory to the principal permitted use.


Village of Sauk Village, Illinois

21701 Torrence Avenue Sauk Village, IL 60411 (708)758-3330 Fax: (708) 758-9044

Zoning Case:_____________________________________________

Date: ___________________________________________________

12/10/98 Commissioner:



1. Is the accessory use to be conducted on the same lot as the principal permitted use? Yes No Uncertain

2. Is the proposed accessory use customarily found in connection with the principal permitted use? Yes No Uncertain

3. Is their unity of ownership between the principal and accessory uses? Yes No Uncertain


More and more often plan commissions, zoning boards of appeals and zoning officials will be faced with the question of when to approve an apparent unrelated use as an accessory use on a single zoning lot. Along with the tower example other situations such as storage sheds for hobby (and retail sales) use, living units as part of commercial and industrial businesses, and manufacturing uses as part of a retail sales business have potential to be considered as accessory uses, depending on the construction of the language in the local zoning ordinance. Use of the work sheet allows the analysis of the individual circumstances of each application and uniform application of guidelines to help decision making.

About the Authors

Chuck Eckenstahler earned his CED certification in 1984 and is now semi retired. He is a 35 year veteran real estate and municipal planning and economic development consultant who helped originate and taught economic development subjects in the Certificate in Economic Development Program offered by the Graduate School of Business at Purdue North Central, Westville, Indiana and serves on the faculty of the Lowell Stahl Center for Commercial Real Estate Studies at Lewis University, Oakbrook Illinois. He can be contacted at or by phone at 219-861-2077.  More info at:

Craig Hullinger AICP has 35 years of experience in economic development, city planning, and transportation planning. He is a Partner in the consulting firm of Ruyle Hullinger and Associates. He was formerly the Economic Development Director of Peoria, the Director of Land Use for Will County, and the Village Manager of Olympia Fields, Minooka, and University Park. He is member of the American Institute of Certified Planners, a Vietnam Veteran, and is a retired Colonel in the Marine Corps Reserve.  He can be contacted at or by phone at 309 634 5557. More info at:

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