What is Zoning?
Zoning is a system by which land use, new construction, and existing building modifications are defined and regulated. Each city has its own way of categorizing and regulating these zones, thus defining the land use of every plot of land within its limits. The intended use of a property-- a commercial, residential or industrial use--delineates zones within a city. Zoning regulation are often viewed as an aggravation or impediment to the development an architectural project; however, we must understand that zoning is for the benefit of neighborhoods and the city, in general. Let’s see why zoning is so important for a project and how we should navigate our way through the review process.
Before beginning any architectural or development project of your own, it is important to understand the zoning of your property. Knowing this information upfront makes the design process easier and typically eliminates the possibility of complications due to creating plans that will be denied based on zoning laws. DGS/a Architecture is a local, full-service Boston architecture firm that provides zoning analysis services for remodeling projects in and around the Boston metro area. Here are the typical factors DGS/a considers when conducting a thorough zoning analysis:
Boston architecture is among some of the oldest in America. Similarly, the earliest cities grew rapidly throughout the 1700s and 1800s, but it wasn’t until the 1900s that zoning laws were introduced. Zoning was implemented over a system of unregulated existing constructions with a goal of creating order and precise rules to better organize and govern a city’s growth. The laws usually came into being after complaints were filed in court about new buildings that had negative and unintended consequences. For example, skyscrapers were new at the time, and their presence resulted in an obstruction of light and air quality for the structures near them. Additionally, the trend of maximizing the use of a lot of land precipitated a host of issues. Homes would be built too close together, a particular area would become crowded and overpopulated, and the mixing of different types of structure usage would make living in a neighborhood less desirable, thus reducing the quality of life for residents in that area. In an attempt to ensure that the rapid growth of a municipality’s structures was conducted in a manner that keeps the city beautiful and organized, zoning laws were introduced.
What do Zoning Laws regulate?
Zoning laws cover everything from a small “she shed” in your backyard, to adding a room to your home, or to widening your driveway. They also regulate neighborhoods as a whole. Within communities, specific property uses are relegated exclusively for homes, just for business, just for recreation, etc., and also a mix of these in some areas. One zoning law in the Boston suburb of Newton, MA addresses dormer. Dormers are a typical solution to add living and head space to dark, cramped attics. However, due to the nature of older homes and the popularity of dormers throughout the 1980s & 1990s, they started to become unsightly because of how over-scaled they became. Thus, a zoning law was developed to regulate how dormers are designed and constructed, which in the end protects the character of Newton’s historical neighborhoods and ultimately maintains property values.
Zoning - Why?
Zoning can seem burdensome, but it provides benefits that help maintain the value of your property and the quality of life for people within the zones. For example, if your neighbor wanted to add a 3rd story to their house that would block the sunlight that enters your home, a zoning regulation that wouldn’t allow that would be of benefit to you. Not allowing a factory near a school, or an unsightly and intrusive structure within a neighborhood are both worthwhile. Zoning laws that regulate this help to maintain the quality of a neighborhood, it makes your living experience there more satisfying, and it makes selling your property easier. For homeowners, zoning is a protective measure. For instance, zoning ensures that the quiet and cozy surroundings that prompted you to buy your home in a specific location won’t be disrupted by structures that attract a lot of noise or traffic in the coming years. Simply put, zoning defines what can and cannot be done in certain areas so that the integrity of that area can be maintained. This is why zoning is beneficial.
In particular, zoning helps to control:
Types of buildings in a specific area
Neighborhood density, thus preventing overcrowding
Use of each specific plot of land
Aesthetic value of a neighborhood
The prevention of incompatible land use (i.e. no factories near schools)
Zoning - When?
Zoning isn’t perfect and can have some disadvantages. However, the proper interpretation of zoning regulations will give you the insight you need to fully understand the design possibilities of the property you own. DGS/a Architecture recommends completing a zoning analysis before delving into the design process.
Understanding a property’s zoning regulations from the beginning allows you to precisely establish design liberties and limitations, hence helping you avoid wasted time and money on a design that would defy your property’s zoning codes. Furthermore, understanding the constraints of your property’s zoning limits before envisioning renovation changes, lowers the chance of your proposed design being declined by city officials. In addition to requiring more design time and costing more money, changes required by zoning violations can set your project behind schedule. Whether you intend to sell or move in to this property, pushing your finish date back means yet more money out of your pocket. DGS/a Architecture believes the best way to avoid these pitfalls is to make a zoning analysis your first priority.
What is a Zoning Analysis?
Before starting a home remodeling project in Boston, DGS/a Architecture always completes a full zoning analysis. A zoning analysis is when you research a property’s zoning laws, synthesize that information with the current state of the property, and use all of this information to determine what modifications can be made to enhance the property. At DGS/a Architecture, a detailed zoning analysis starts with in-depth research and is followed up with confirmation from a zoning professional in the governing municipality. The end result is the creation of schematic sketches that illustrate the design possibilities based on the zoning analysis. This process typically takes a total of 10-15 hours spread over the time of about 4 weeks.
Online research can provide you with a lot of information about your property, but you have to know where to look first. An assessing database, which is most typically used to find the monetary value of a house, also contains zoning information. For the Boston area, two such helpful websites are cityofboston.gov and boston.gov. Searching your city government website will also aid in your zoning research. Lastly, do a Google search! Search terms such as “Boston + zoning code” to find helpful websites and documents to locate your property’s zoning information.
The information about zoning that you will find will look something like SF-1 (Single Family-One Resident), or R-1 (Residential-One). After finding the zone(s) that apply to your property, research what the specific details are for each. Look for what is allowed and what isn’t allowed, compare it to your property and building, and start to make the connections about what is and isn’t allowed when making changes to the property.
Consult a Professional
After conducting your own thorough research and drawing conclusions from it, make contact with a zoning professional located in the same municipality as your property. If they have time to meet with or talk to you, you will be able to ask them questions about your findings. Here is an example question to get you started:
“I found that my property is Zone SFR. This is what I read about setbacks for this type of zoning. According to do this, am I correctly interpreting that I am allowed to do XYZ with my property?”
Understand Your Zoning Rights
After you have more accurately defined your property’s zoning regulations and gotten clarification from a zoning professional, it will help you understand what you can and cannot do moving forward. Compare the zoning codes with you design scope and determine whether the changes fit into one of these three categories:
By-Right means that the modifications you wish to make are allowed in your zone, and do not require a special permit or hearing in front of a Zoning Review Board (ZBA). The building inspector can issue a building permit for the proposed work without triggering additional review process.
Special Permit required
This means that what you wish to modify is allowed, but how you modify it must be reviewed and approved before you can take action. Special permits are granted to the current homeowner typically, but may require subsequent review after a specific period of time or if the house is sold to a new owner.
This category means that your zoning laws clearly state that what you wish to do is not allowed. For example, an auto dealership is not allowed in a single-family residential district. No amount of review or appeals will allow such property uses to exist within the same zoning district.
Allowed or Permissible, but not Feasible
Here’s an example: The setback requirement of your property is 10’, and the previous homeowner already expanded the home. The home now reaches 12’ from the setback line, leaving you a 2’ permissible expansion. Expanding 2’ is allowed/permissible in this case, but it would not be worth the cost of labor and material if this expansion would not significantly enhance the property.
Once you are aware of your property’s zoning and the regulations that define it, you can more confidently embark on the design process. Contact DGS/a Architecture to obtain a zoning analysis to ensure your renovation project starts correctly. Having someone who knows the process is invaluable.