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What are special permits used for?

On Behalf of | Apr 3, 2024 | Land Use And Zoning |

Here in Massachusetts, zoning and land use laws regulate the activities that property owners and developers can undertake.

These rules protect communities and the environment, but can be restrictive in some cases. Special permits allow actions that laws and regulations normally prohibit.

Permits and land use

Special permits in zoning and land use grant exceptions to existing regulations for a property. Property owners can use their land in ways that do not fully comply with zoning laws if they meet conditions set by the zoning authority or local government.

Special permits are often necessary for construction projects that deviate from local laws and events that draw large crowds, such as festivals or parades. Activities impacting protected areas or discharging pollutants require the use of special licenses to meet environmental standards, too.

Local regulations and permits

Each town has standards and guidelines for what is acceptable when approving a special permit. Local governments set zoning laws, including special permit criteria. Towns and cities can customize regulations to match local needs.

Special permit standards vary based on population density, geography, preservation priorities and future development goals. Localized regulations ensure permits align with planning objectives and do not harm the community.

Examples of special permits

A wide range of activities may require a special permit, including, but not limited to, the following scenarios.

A small business run from home may require a special permit due to zoning regulations, especially if the company uses part of the residence. Introducing a business to a residential area can cause more foot traffic, change parking needs and alter noise levels.

Local zoning regulations often have strict rules around parking lots. Some communities may allow for more flexibility by allowing developers to reduce parking space to residential unit ratio with a special permit. This scenario often occurs in urban development projects and in areas that promote sustainable transportation modes, such as walking, cycling and public transit.

A developer building shared housing for older adults may need a special permit. Developments that blend residential and commercial use may not fit traditional zoning categories. They may require modifications to density, parking and building height standards.

For residential property owners, adding sheds, garages, AC units or generators outside zoning rules usually mandates use of a special permit. Likewise, adding an in-law suite or accessory apartment often necessitates a special permit from local authorities due to non-standard zoning.

Different areas have varying permit requirements, so thorough research is necessary. If you are a developer or property owner, a lawyer who knows the local laws can help guide you through this process.


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