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What is the difference between a variance and a special permit?

| Nov 3, 2020 | Zoning and land use |

This question is heard a lot here in Boston and around the state when owners contemplate changes to their property. In either case, the owner must follow a process for filing an appeal with the appropriate local Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA). Each municipality has its own rules, but generally speaking, the BZA holds public hearings where the public can voice its opinion. The board then determines whether to allow or deny the variance or special permit. The owner must wait a year before they can appeal a denial unless they make significant changes to the plan that address issues that caused the rejection.

Getting a variance

A variance addresses a proposed change that violates the dimensional requirements or use provision of the applicable zoning ordinance. Common examples include:

  • Safety: Boston has plenty of old properties that are beloved but unsafe, perhaps because of design or aging. Soil conditions or topography may also be at issue.
  • Impact: Relief may be granted if there is no substantial detriment to the public good or substantially undercutting the by-law’s purpose.

What is a special permit?

This is required for allowing a particular use once the owner meets certain conditions, and it is easier to get than a variance. Common examples include:

  • There are specific distances for setback from the street, rear yard, side yard or maximum structure height in stories or feet.
  • The owner wishes to alter further a non-conforming property, which may have been grandfathered in before zoning code changes.

It’s best to do research first

Failure to follow the rules so before doing non-compliant work can incur fines or additional expenses, even if a previous owner did the work. If the new building or renovation does not meet zoning requirements, the work may need to be altered or even removed. So it is best to figure out the zoning requirements before doing the work or hiring someone to do it.

Those with a specific question about their property may wish to consult with an attorney with experience handling zoning and land use issues here in Boston and the surrounding communities. Their background often better enables them to oversee the application process and appeals process for variances and special permits.

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