For many communities throughout the country, each municipality has its own elected and appointed officials who oversee the governing of their respective communities and are tasked with charting and shaping the growth of their towns. This system of checks and balances plays a primary role when building a new commercial facility; these are the people who approve—or don’t approve—requests for new construction, expansion and/or renovation of an existing space. It is imperative for those looking to expand or develop new areas to get to know these individuals and understand the processes of the specific town government within which they are looking to develop.
It should first be noted that not everyone is skilled at navigating the sometimes-cloudy waters of the zoning and planning process. While many business owners wish to be involved in all details of construction projects, sometimes they are better served handing off the important municipal board aspect to a project manager—someone with experience in dealing with review panels.
To start, recognize that each community differs somewhat in its zoning and planning regulations. What may fall under existing regulations in one community may require a special permit in another. The process, which takes an idea from concept to final approval, may not look exactly the same from community to community, but there are common guidelines everyone should follow in attempting to navigate a remodeling or new construction process.
Keep in mind that the process of planning and approving a project can take months to complete. Initially, you need to determine what approvals (and from which boards) are required prior to submitting blueprints for permitting. Typically, your project will be taken under review by the Planning Board, Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) and possibly the Conservation Commission. These panels sometimes meet weekly, but most often, they meet twice a month. This is a factor that must be weighed heavily when determining your project completion estimated date.
As a bit of a primer—planning boards generally manage the development process by reviewing site plans, subdivisions and special use permits. By law, they can approve only those applications that conform to municipal plans and zoning codes crafted by legislative bodies, such as a town meeting or city council. They cannot put unnecessary barriers in the path of developments that meet the codes. That said, they are responsible for looking at a project from all angles to ensure it won’t have harmful effects, such as traffic congestion, air/water pollution or blighting its surroundings.
Zoning Boards of Appeal, also sometimes known as boards of adjustment or variance boards, generally hear appeals rendered by zoning administrators, interpret unclear provisions in a zoning ordinance and decide on applications submitted by landowners for uses which require a special permit or applications for variances to permit buildings or uses that vary from a community’s zoning regulations.
As you plan your project, learn who the key players and decision-makers on these boards are in the town. Typically some basic information is available from that community’s website. It may also be worth your while for you (or your representative or project manager) to sit in on one or two Planning Board and ZBA meetings to get a sense of the process and the people involved in it. Additionally, make sure you have a thorough understanding of that community’s specific zoning and planning bylaws. In this situation, your architect, engineer or attorney (or all three) should be able to contribute information that will help with the navigation of these town boards and departments.
Once you have determined who the key players are, seek out opportunities to meet with them. In a less formal setting, you can introduce yourself and your project, and determine if they have any suggestions that might make your plan more appealing to the town, or any requirements or “strong recommendations” to make the application progress more smoothly. Not only is informing them about the project early on incredibly helpful, but these conversations can help to avoid surprises down the road.
As you prepare your project application, consider the following questions:
- Is this proposed project an already permitted use? In other words, does the proposed expansion conform to existing zoning bylaws?
- If not, and it requires a special permit or variance, what is the procedure for doing so?
- In turn, which municipal boards, and in what order, should review the necessary applications?
When you have successfully answered these questions, you are ready to submit your formal application. Be sure to provide detailed plans that go with your application. After its submission, hearings will most likely be held before a number of boards, with meetings open to the public.
Hopefully given this level of preparation, foresight and research, your project will be greeted positively. Be sure to recognize, though, that even affirmative votes by individual boards are generally subject to a waiting period, while abutters and other “aggrieved parties” have the chance to appeal the board’s decision. The seemingly slow pace at which governmental approvals can proceed can be frustrating to an applicant. But from the community representative’s point of view, they’re trying to look out for the safety and well-being of the town they are elected or appointed to represent.
As you work your way through the permitting process, knowledge is power. Knowing how to navigate the municipal process can greatly enhance the chances of success for your new development. Be prepared, be patient and be thorough—hopefully the hard work and time you put into this endeavor will be greeted with excitement and approval from the community.