Zoning Regulations: What You Need to Know Before Starting Your Project

By Doug Hanna  

We regularly meet with homeowners who wish to build additions, add dormers or improve undeveloped areas such as basements and attics. One of the first questions we ask them is "have you contacted the city about possible zoning issues? " Often the answer is no, and a decent percentage of those people are not clear on zoning regulations or how they can affect planning for building and renovation. 

Zoning Regulations: What You Need to Know Before  Starting Your Project

Zoning divides cities into zones, where certain types of uses are allowed. Examples of types of use include residential, commercial, industrial, assembly, etc. Many zones that were formerly commercial or industrial are now being converted to residential use. Besides uses, zoning also controls the distance of structures from lot lines, the amount of open space required, the ratio of living space to lot size, number of parking spaces required and a host of other items.   

When you buy a home or condo almost anywhere, but even more so in a dense urban location, some changes you may want to make will fall under the control of local zoning laws. Cambridge and Somerville are good examples of cities largely developed before zoning ordinances came into being. Lots were divided and subdivided many times over during the 19th and early 20th centuries, leading to small yards with mostly wood frame housing, and in some cases built within a few yards, feet or even inches of each other.   

Though it may appear that many homes and businesses are in violation of current zoning rules, and in fact they are, structures built before zoning laws were enacted are "grandfathered" or allowed to remain as is. However, if the owner wants to make changes to that older structure, the new zoning laws apply. Some owners react with surprise when they find out that they may not be allowed "by right "to put a new dormer on their home, or turn a basement into living space. It may at first glance seem outrageous that a person cannot do whatever they want with their home, but there are good reasons for zoning. Zoning laws are in place mainly because unrestricted growth in our already dense cities is no longer acceptable for the health and well-being of the population. 

When a homeowner wants to do improvements that differ from or are "at variance" with the zoning ordinance, they are allowed to apply to the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) for a variance, or sometimes a special permit. Each town and city has their own Zoning Board and members of the Board are usually people from the community appointed by the mayor or city council. There are also usually zoning experts from Inspectional Services (Building Department) in attendance at ZBA hearings. To be approved, variance applications are supposed to prove "hardship." There is also input allowed from the public at hearings, which means neighbors can voice support or opposition to variance applications. Abutters to properties in question have more influence on decisions than other neighbors (another good reason to love thy neighbor!). The zoning ordinances for most cities and towns can now be accessed on-line. If you are not familiar with the language of zoning, reading a zoning ordinance can be mystifying. Help from an architect or attorney experienced with your city and its particular ordinance may be a smart move.

What you do to your home is controlled to a large extent by your own free will, but can also be restricted by your town's zoning ordinance through the Zoning Board of Appeals.

We recommend educating yourself about all possible zoning, building code or historical restrictions before buying a property or planning a project.