Getting a Zoning Variance

The only legal way for homeowners to undertake a renovation that breaks with zoning codes is to get a variance, or waiver of the rules. Generally, homeowners can do this by filing an application with the local zoning board, which will set a hearing on the request. Neighbors will also have to be notified and invited to present their views on the renovation, in writing or at a public meeting. Most of the time homeowners can handle this without the help of their architect or contractor, but they must be prepared to respond persuasively to any challenges to the project. Objections can be raised for a variety of reasons. Common complaints are that granting the variance will alter the character of the neighborhood, have a negative effect on property values, or pose a threat to the safety of local children.

Even if a project seems innocuous — for example, widening a driveway by a few feet, or changing the driveway surface from asphalt to gravel — exceptions don't come easily. "Unless the owner can prove a hardship that prevents him or her from complying with zoning rules, a variance is certainly far from being a sure thing," says Walter White, Quincy's zoning enforcement officer. Most zoning boards will grant one only if the homeowner can demonstrate that not being able to make the alteration would cause significant personal or financial difficulty. For example, if someone purchases a lot intending to build a house on it, and soon afterward the town changes frontage requirements in a way that makes the project in violation by a few feet, the zoning board would likely award a variance. On the other hand, a homeowner who wants to build a second floor on a street zoned for single-story homes because the house is too small for his growing family isn't likely to win over local officials.

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