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Making sense of zoning classifications

Whether you are a new investor, developer or just looking for the right property, you probably have numerous questions regarding why a piece of property falls under certain zoning laws. The general idea behind zoning is to provide Massachusetts residents with a pleasant and peaceful place to live.

Few people would want to live next door to a large, noisy and perhaps smelly factory. Most people wouldn't want bars, medical marijuana dispensaries or strip clubs near their children's schools or their homes. Even so, in many areas, people now want to live closer to entertainment, where they work and other commercial establishments.

The most commonly used zoning classifications

Below are the most common types of zoning that you will see in many cities, including Boston:

  • Commercial zoning includes shopping centers, office buildings, restaurants and maybe apartments.
  • Residential zoning includes apartments, houses, mobile homes and condominiums.
  • Agricultural zoning supports farm and farm-related activities and may include minimum acreage for this category.
  • Industrial zoning includes warehouses, factories and other, similar establishments.
  • Historic zoning protects historical structures and building from alteration.
  • Rural zoning may allow residential owners to keep small livestock and horses.
  • Aesthetic zoning usually covers areas that want to require uniformity such as in landscaping, color schemes and building materials.
  • Mixed use zoning allows for residential, office, retail and entertainment to coexist in the same area.

Just because a certain area is currently covered by a particular zoning classification does not mean that it cannot change. In some cases, the zoning ordinances are out of date, and it just takes someone asking the question for it to change.

The most common ways to change zoning

You may either challenge an existing zoning ordinance to have it changed or request an exception to the current ordinance. Any number of factors could influence which direction you choose. In some cases, you may begin with requesting an exception, but if you receive a denial, you may attempt to change the zoning for the area in which you wish to purchase a piece of property.

In some cases, the zoning in an area has already changed, but you wish to purchase a piece of property that remained in use by the current owner under different zoning. It may be possible to retain that zoning classification referred to as either "lawful nonconforming use" or "continuing existing use." You may also apply for a variance to allow you to incorporate specific variations from the current laws.

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