The Zoning By-laws are local ordinances regulating the use and development of property by dividing the jurisdiction into land use districts or zones represented on a map and specifying the uses and development standards (e.g. maximum height of structures, minimum setbacks, minimum useable open space) within each zone.  Zoning ordinances should be the first area of review as they are the most critical factors in all building projects.

Adhering to all of the zoning and building code requirements will result in the issuance of a building permit.  Permits are approvals required by local building authorities, including building, land use, electrical, HVAC, energy, conservation, etc.  As stated in my previous blog Do I need an Architect , an Architect is the person who will help you identify what you can and cannot do with your home and property legally based on the local zoning by-laws.

Many times a traditional Building Permit cannot be obtained without a preceding permit granted by one (or many) local town boards.  In all cases a public hearing before the board will be required.   Below are the types of permits a residential project might need before a building permit will be granted.

Variance – A limited waiver from the requirements of the zoning ordinance, or building code, that may be granted because of special circumstances regarding the subject property. A variance requires a public hearing before the Planning Commission or Zoning Board.  If needed, a variance is required prior to obtaining a building permit.  Keri Murray Architecture (KMA) was granted a Variance for the Cambridge Urban Addition Project.

Special Permit – A Special Permit isn’t actually a permit in the familiar sense, but permission to construct a building or establish a use that is not allowed by right.  Special permits are often required when special site characteristics or design features warrant a deviation from the zoning standards for a typical lot.  Common requests for exceptions to these standards include variations in building height, setbacks, and floor area ratios (FARs). Sometimes a proposed project has unique characteristics that warrant special review to make sure it will be compatible with other uses nearby – such as an In-Law Apartment. The Planning Board is the Special Permit Granting Authority and their approval is required prior to obtaining a building permit.  KMA was granted a Special Permit for the Scituate Expansion Project.

Certificate of Appropriateness –  If your home is considered historic or lies within a historic district, you are bound by the regulations of the Historic Preservation Commission regarding the external appearance of your home. Any additions or changes have to comply with the rules of the commission and a Certificate of Appropriateness (COA) will need to be issued prior to permitting.  These certificates approve work done to anything that can be seen from outside the house; including windows, doors, paint colors, materials, rooflines, gutters, etc. A COA confirms that the proposed design is appropriate and acceptable. KMA was granted a Certificate of Appropriateness for the Orleans Cape Project.

Use Permit – Rarely a Conditional Use Permit is required for residential projects. An example would be a residential building (house) looking to function as a daycare or play-school in addition to housing the residents.  Pursuant to the zoning ordinance, a permit to authorize uses not routinely allowed on a particular site subject to compliance with specified conditions.

In my next blog I will discuss the various city and town boards that grant permission.

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