Indy Rewind : A Zoning Primer – How Building Permits Are Decided


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Indy Rewind will appear from time to time and will reprise previously posted news stories and opinion pieces that speak to the current moment and that are worth revisiting.  This week, we revisit a series of four primers on zoning by Kitty Axelson-Berry that we posted two years ago, to help our readers better understand the often obscure and impenetrable workings of zoning.

Given that there is now considerable discussion around proposed changes to our zoning bylaws, centered on removing the requirement to obtain a Special Permit to build dulplexes, triplexes, or townhouses in the RG (general residential) zone, we repost here a brief introduction to Amherst’s permitting process and an explanation of the difference between Special Permit and Site Plan Review. We have also provided links to other primers in the series.

A Guide To Amherst’s 24 Zoning, Overlay And Other Districts
What Is The Planning Board? A Zoning Primer
What Is The Zoning Board Of Appeals? A Zoning Primer

Check out other editions of Indy Rewind here.

An Exploration Of Permit Types
This week, the Indy provides the basics of permits related to buildings and land use in Amherst. The permitting authority depends on the type of permit, but is either the Planning Board or the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA), which we will explore in the near future. Members of the Planning Board and ZBA are appointed by the Town Council. 

By Right: This relates to the usage of a proposed structure. If the usage is allowed in the zoning district where the building would be constructed, it is allowed “by right.” Even so, it must conform to numerous regulations, such as minimum lot size, road frontage, and distance from the property lines, as well as maximum square footage of the structure and how much of the lot it would cover. A by-right use is “a normal and expected use in the district.” Sometimes a proposed structure is allowed by right but nevertheless requires a Site Plan Review or Special Permit. The Zoning Enforcement Officer (Rob Morra) reviews each application and determines whether the use, even if allowed by right, requires a Site Plan Review, or a Special Permit in a R-VC (Village Center Residential) district. (An R-VC District is a residential area of medium density within and next to a village center, and allows a limited mix of residential and office uses.)

(See Zoning Bylaw, Article 3, Use Regulations)

Site Plan Review (SPR): Site Plan Review, under the purview of the Planning Board, relates to criteria such as the proposed layout, scale, appearance, safety, and environmental impacts of a building. In many municipalities, these include pedestrian and vehicular access to and egress from the site; parking and loading; landscaping, screening, and buffers; lighting; signage; snow removal; drainage and stormwater management; water and wastewater systems; refuse disposal; architectural style and scale. The Planning Board also reviews details related to the proposed building’s appearance and ambience, such as height, lot coverage, road frontage, property lines, square footage, setbacks from the property lines, green and open space, and whether it meets the intent of the Town’s Master Plan.

(See Zoning Bylaw, Section 11.2, Site Plan Review, pp. 107–112)

The Planning Board can attach conditions to a permit to minimize any negative impacts that the project might have on neighboring uses and to enhance its compatibility with neighboring uses. The Planning Board must hold a public hearing before it can award a permit for a structure that requires a Site Plan Review.

(See Zoning Bylaw Articles 11.24 and 11.25, Site Plan Review, page 109–112)

Proposed mixed-use structures, which feature retail and other types of business uses as well as residential spaces, require a Site Plan Review or a Special Permit in an R-VC-zoned area. A Zoning Amendment that would spell out and clarify requirements for mixed-use buildings was considered a priority by the Planning Department and Building Commissioner. A proposed amendment has been drafted by the Planning Department and is now being considered by the Community Resources Committee (CRC) and the Planning Board.

(See Zoning Bylaw Use Chart 3.325, Mixed-use Buildings, page 34)

Decisions about proposed structures requiring a Site Plan Review are made by the seven-member Planning Board.

Special Permit (SP): A Special Permit is used for permitting a structure whose use is neither prohibited nor allowed by right. Explicit permission must be given by the Special Permit Granting Authority (SPGA), which may either be the Planning Board or the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA).

(See Article 3, Use Chart. SP means that the Granting Authority is the Zoning Board of Appeals; SPP means that the Granting Authority is the Planning Board.)

A Special Permit is needed when specific uses of a property are not considered normal and expected, but might be considered possible in the zoning district where the property is located. The SPGA must hold a public hearing, after notifying the owners of adjacent properties (abutters). The SPGA must review applicable sections of the Zoning Bylaw and consider the potential impact on the proposed structure’s surroundings before issuing a ruling. It can deny the use entirely or grant a special permit, with conditions about how the site must be developed and how the permitted use there will be conducted. A Special Permit is granted at the discretion of the Special Permit Granting Authority; no one applying for a Special Permit can assume that they will receive one. 

If the Planning Board is the Granting Authority, the decision is made by at least five of it seven members. If the ZBA is the Granting Authority, the decision is made by at least four of its five full members.

Approval Not Required (ANR): Approval is not required for a property that is being divided or whose lot-line is being moved if it does not result in property that is considered a subdivision.

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