Zoning Regulations and the Zoning Board of Appeal in Massachusetts
All municipalities in Massachusetts use zoning regulations to restrict the use of property within their respective jurisdictions. This means that there are no uniform state rules about zoning, as each town, city, county, or other type of municipality, has its own zoning regulations tailored to the needs of that area.
Zoning regulations are not always well understood by new property owners, and there may be an unrealistic perception that when you buy land or any other sort of property you can do what you like with it. This is definitely not the case. Zoning regulations restrict different parts of the jurisdiction to certain broad uses, such as residential, industrial, commercial, recreational and conservation. As populations grow and, in some cases, decline, local municipal governments may change the zoning regulations to accommodate different needs anticipated in the future.
It is important for all prospective purchasers of property to know what the zoning regulations are in the location that they are interested in buying property. The regulations do not just affect the broader use of land but can determine limitations on the size of buildings, how many buildings can be built on a particular property, how high a building can be, whether there are restrictions on removing a building because of its heritage value, how far from the nearest road or street they can be built and so on.
Each municipality will employ one or more local zoning or building code officers whose job it is to ensure that the zoning regulations are enforced. Where the zoning regulations for a specific area, property or building have been breached, then the property owner may be forced to conform to what is allowed. For example, if a homeowner has built an annex to their house which is larger than what is allowed for that zone, they may be requested to demolish it or at least have it modified so that it conforms to the allowed size.
The function of the zoning board of appeal
Each municipality not only devises and implements its own zoning regulations but will also have its own zoning board of appeal. This board can be approached if a property owner or intending property owner disagrees with the restrictions imposed on what they can do with their property or wants to apply for an exception or variance to the code for their property. They first do that through the zoning board of appeal.
Appealing a zoning decision
Appealing a zoning decision or applying for a variance of the regulations to permit a non conforming structure or land use is no easy matter. The party making the appeal must understand enough about the town or city’s zoning regulations to provide convincing reasons why their submission should be accepted. It is advisable to use an experienced real estate lawyer to help in appealing any kind of zoning decision or apply for a variance.
Zoning boards are made up of local residents who have been appointed to make decisions about appeals. Parties who are appealing a decision or asking for a variance would normally attend a hearing of the board to make their case, somewhat like a court hearing but less formal.
If the zoning board does not approve the appeal or variance, then the applicant may then make a further appeal to a court, typically the Land Court. Any appeal to the Land Court would mean that the party making the appeal would have to show evidence that they have been “aggrieved” by the zoning decision.
Pros and cons of zoning regulations in Massachusetts
Zoning rules may seem to be an unnecessary imposition for many property owners but they have some important advantages over an unregulated environment. They can prevent urban sprawl, allow for green spaces and conservation values, prevent neighbors from annoying each other and other residents by building structures that negatively affect their right to enjoy the use of their own properties, compartmentalize commercial and residential areas so that services and infrastructure can be more easily provided to suit the use of that area.
Zoning also helps to retain the value of one’s property as it restricts the development of other uses of nearby land and properties that could reduce the potential sale value sometime in the future.
There are perceived disadvantages of zoning regulations as well. Some people think that zoning regulations are tilted more favorably to wealthier residential neighborhoods by excluding industrial development close to them and including more green spaces. Lower income neighborhoods may find that they are disproportionately disadvantages by closer proximity to industrial development. Other people feel that separately located commercial and residential zoning means a continued overdependence on private transport, whereas a more mixed or less strict zoning would favor easier access by residents to shops and other services.
The role of the Massachusetts state government in zoning regulations
While zoning regulations are largely the preserve of local government, the state does have some influence in the form of the Zoning Act. This legislation was first enacted in 1975 to legalize the creation of zoning regulations by Massachusetts municipalities to protect the “health, safety, and general welfare of the community.” The terms of the Zoning Act are modified from year to year, mostly being minor modifications.
In January 2021, the state’s Governor, Charlie Baker, signed into law a more significant change to the Zoning Act, which made it clearer what the definition of a “multifamily” dwelling and an “accessory dwelling unit” was, mainly to reduce unnecessary legal action challenging local zoning rules concerning these types of properties. The new changes introduced a list of municipalities which were made to ensure that there was at least one designated zone where multifamily dwellings could be built. These zones were expected to that the buildings were within 0.5 miles of public transit facilities, such as railway stations, bus terminals, ferry terminals etc.