In the Zone
When renovating in Boston, homeowners inevitably run up against the city's zoning code.
Steve Thomas met with architect Jack French and the zoning commissioner to discuss the Beliveaus' renovation plan.
Whether you are building a new home or just making improvements in Boston, you'll inevitably be confronted with the requirements of the city zoning code. Unique to
Boston, this code is designed to maintain, enhance and promote the residential character of Boston's neighborhoods, while at the same time encouraging economic
development. The city tries to recognize and provide for the diverse land use needs in its neighborhoods and commercial and industrial areas.
A permit is the first step for any building project. Plan examiners review blueprints to ensure that the proposed project meets all the code's requirements,
which can include height, parking and use restrictions. If the project meets the
code's requirements, the permit can be issued. If a proposed project does not
comply with the code requirements, the applicant must seek a variance or special
permit from the Zoning Board of Appeal.
Dan and Heather Beliveau applied for a building permit to add a third floor bathroom, a roof deck and a basement apartment in their Charlestown row house.
Although the bathroom is being built over an existing structure and the
building's footprint is not being altered, the code calls for a 20-foot set back from the rear property line and, in the plans, only 13 feet separates the rear of
the house from the property line. The new roof deck raises the roofline
above the 35-foot minimum and alters its mansard profile. In addition, the floor-area-ratio-a comparison between livable space in the building to the square
footage of the lot-exceeds the maximum for the district. Because these changes aren't in accordance with Charlestown Neighborhood District zoning, the Beliveaus' renovation requires zoning relief.
Dan and Heather filed their appeal in July and presented their proposal at a public hearing in September. That same day the board granted their variance. In less than three months, the Beliveaus made it through the permitting and zoning process and could start their project with little delay. At one time, however,
obtaining zoning relief could take six to nine months. A recent city initiative
to encourage residential development in Boston has created a more efficient zoning process that makes construction work for the city's unique neighborhoods.
Caseworkers are now assigned to each applicant that walk them through the process
from start to finish. The city has also scheduled additional Board of Appeal hearings and implemented a weekly, free multi-lingual zoning clinic, staffed by
engineers and architects, that educates residents on specific zoning requirements
and the permitting process in general. As a result, homeowners like Dan and
Heather can get their permits and get their renovation rolling.