Both are types of zoning relief. A Special Permit is required where the proposed use or development is identified by the Zoning By-Law as requiring one. Special permits will be outlined in the tables and text of the By-Law as available for certain uses or certain dimensional exceptions if the ZBA finds that the applicant meets specific criteria.
A variance is required if the proposed use or development is prohibited by the By-Law. The applicant must prove that there is uniqueness to their lot whereby a literal interpretation of the By-Law would cause a hardship warranting an exception from the Zoning By-Law. The application process for variances and special permits is the same. An application is located here.
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Zoning is defined as the act or process of partitioning a municipality into zones reserved for different purposes (such as residence or business) and the set of ordinances by which such zones are established and regulated.
Zoning is a tool used by municipalities to dictate the allowed uses, types, massing, scaling and density of development in a given area. Brookline’s Zoning By-Law incorporates a written code (describing setbacks, heights, allowed uses, densities, etc.) and a map which indicates which geographic areas are subject to which zoning guidelines.
Your proposed project may require zoning relief if your proposed changes or proposed use do not meet the requirements of the Zoning By-Law or if your home is a pre-existing non-conforming structure. You can consult the Zoning By-Law to determine if your proposal conforms to the By-Law or consult with staff in the Planning or Building Departments.
A pre-existing non-conforming structure is a structure that complied with zoning and development regulations at the time it was built but which, because of subsequent changes to the zoning and/or development regulations, no longer fully complies with those regulations.
An “as of right” project is one that does not require zoning relief. If your proposal meets all zoning requirements, you can proceed with a Building Permit.
Under Section 8.02 of Brookline’s Zoning By-Law, a special permit is required if you are extending a pre-existing non-conformity, such as increasing the FAR of a structure that is already above the allowed FAR or adding a third story to a structure that is already within the allowed setback. State case law has determined that pre-existing non-conformities can be extended if no new non-conformities are created and if the ZBA finds that the extended non-conformities will not be substantially more detrimental to the neighborhood.
The zoning process in Brookline involves 5 main steps:
1) Submit a Plan Review application to the Building Department to receive a denial letter outlining what zoning relief you will need
2) Submit a Special Permit/Variance application to the Planning Department
3) Present your proposal to the Planning Board who will make a recommendation to the Zoning Board of Appeals
4) Present your proposal to the Zoning Board of Appeals who will make a final decision
5) Receive a final approval from the Planning staff which you can use to apply for a Building Permit
To apply for these steps, visit our Applications page.
The Planning Board and Zoning Board of Appeals both serve different functions in Brookline. The Planning Board is a 7 member board that consists of design professionals. The Planning Board reviews and offers recommendations to the ZBA on all zoning cases. It also guides the physical growth and development of the Town through the adoption and implementation of a master plan, consideration of zoning bylaw amendments, and evaluation and recommendation on land use changes, development projects and the siting of wireless telecommunication facilities. The Planning Board also approves commercial signage and facades and appoints Design Advisory Team to review Major Impact Projects.
The Board of Appeals is the Town’s permit granting authority that is responsible for reviewing and approving applications for relief by special permit and by variance from the requirements of the Zoning By-Law, in accordance with the “Massachusetts Zoning Act” - Massachusetts General Laws, Chapter 40A. 3 board members sit for each hearing and a unanimous vote is required for zoning relief to be granted. The ZBA also hears administrative appeals of Building Commissioner decisions or of ZBA decisions.
We recommend using the “Where Am I Brookline?” app to determine the zoning district for a particular parcel. Enter the address at the top and scroll to the “Zoning District” tab at the bottom of the screen. Once you know your zoning district, you can refer to the Zoning By-Law for the requirements of that district.
Floor Area Ratio (FAR) is tool used to regulate lot coverage and density. It is a ratio of the gross floor area in a structure to the land area of its lot. It is calculated by dividing the gross floor area by the total lot size. FAR accounts for the entire floor area of a building, not simply the building's footprint. Buildings with varying numbers of stories may have the same FAR value. For example, the FAR of a 1,000-square-foot building with one story situated on a 4,000-square-foot lot would be 0.25. A two-story building on the same lot, where each floor was 500 square feet, would have the same FAR. FAR limits for zoning districts in Brookline can be found in Chapter 5, Table of Dimensional Requirements.
Public comment is welcome at all Planning Board, ZBA, Preservation Commission and NCDC public meetings and hearings unless otherwise noted. Residents are able to speak in favor or in opposition of a project. If you cannot attend the hearing in person, you can submit written comment in advance. Please use the Staff Directory to find the appropriate staff person to send your comments to. All public comment is submitted to the Board members prior to the hearing for their consideration and Boards consider these comments in rendering their decision. If you would like to see the plans for a project prior to a hearing, please contact staff.
These types of structures are considered “accessory structures” and must be located at least six feet from side and rear property lines and at least six feet from the main structure on the lot. Accessory structures are not permitted in the front yard setback. If you require a setback less than six feet, a special permit is required.
The Town of Brookline does allow accessory dwelling units provided that they comply with a variety of requirements. These requirements may be found in the Zoning By-law under Section 4.05. Accessory Dwelling Units are only allowed in single-family homes or accessory buildings on such properties (like a garage).
An attorney is not a requirement. Applications can be submitted by an attorney on behalf of an applicant, by the property owner or by a representative of the owner such as an architect or contractor.
However, it is important that you understand what action you are requesting from the Board or Commission and how you qualify for it. If you do not understand the Bylaw or what you need from the Board, a lawyer or other representative may be able to help you. You may also want a lawyer or representative to present your case before the Board if you do not feel comfortable doing so yourself. Staff is also available to help answer questions on the process.
There are a few steps left in the process after the ZBA votes to approve your proposal:
1) A decision document will be drafted outlining your proposal, describing the requested relief and recording the vote of the ZBA. The decision is signed by the Chair of the ZBA.
2) The decision is filed with the Town Clerk.
3) A 20-day appeal period begins during which any aggrieved parties can file an appeal against the decision.
4) After 20 calendar days, if no appeals have been filed, you can pick up your decision from the Clerk and bring it to the Norfolk County Registry of Deeds to file.
5) Submit a PDF copy of your final plans to Planning staff. Staff will stamp your plans and send them back to you with an approval memo.
6) Upload your stamped plans and your proof of filing from the Registry of Deeds to the online Building Permit application.
The process can take up to six month in total so we advise applicants to plan accordingly.
The Planning Department recommends that plans be drafted by a registered architect for accuracy. However, if your project is for a single or two-family home, a registered architect is not required. For any other structure, plans must be stamped by a registered architect licensed in Massachusetts. All applications also require a site plan/land survey stamped by a registered land surveyor.
Sign and façade alterations in commercial districts are subject to the signage regulations outlined in Section 7 of the Zoning By-Law and vary based on zoning district. Sign and Façade Design Review takes place at Planning Board meetings on Wednesday morning. Some sign alterations may be able to be approved by staff. To discuss your signage plans, contact Trevor Johnson.
The Planning Department maintains an online archive of all ZBA decisions dating back to 2013 here. If the ZBA decision you are looking for is older than 2013, please contact the Planning Department.
Amendments to the Zoning By-Law or Zoning Map are voted on by Town Meeting. Proposals for amendments can be submitted as warrant articles. Town Meeting is held typically twice a year, once in May and again in November. The open warrant period usually begins in February for the spring Town Meeting and in August for the fall Town Meeting. Warrant articles must be submitted to the Select Board's Office before noon on the day the Warrant closes. Warrant articles submitted by citizens must be accompanied by 10 signatures of Brookline registered voters. It is recommended that proposed amendments be submitted to Town Counsel for prior review to ensure issues of legality or form are addressed. For more information on this process, read this guide.
A project categorized as a “40B” refers to Chapter 40B of the Massachusetts General Laws, a state statute which enables local Zoning Boards of Appeals to approve affordable housing developments under flexible rules if at least 20-25% of the units have long-term affordability restrictions. These projects are also known as Comprehensive Permits.
Chapter 40B was enacted in 1969 to help address the shortage of affordable housing statewide by reducing unnecessary barriers created by local approval processes, local zoning, and other restrictions. The goal of Chapter 40B is to encourage the production of affordable housing in all cities and towns throughout the Commonwealth. The standard is for communities to provide a minimum of 10% of their housing inventory as affordable. Communities that have NOT met the 10% requirement are subject to 40B proposals which can waive local zoning requirements and apply more flexible zoning standards than non-40B projects.
To qualify for Chapter 40B, a development proposal must first be approved under a state or federal housing program, such as MassHousing, MassDevelopment, the Department of Housing and Community Development, or the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. At least 25% of the units must be affordable to lower income households who earn no more than 80% of the area median income (Alternatively, for rental housing, the project can provide 20% of the units to households below 50% of median income.)
For more info on 40B projects in Brookline, visit our 40B page.
A subdivision is a division of land into two or more lots and involves the creation of a new road. An ANR (“approval not required”) is the division of land into lots with frontage on existing roads, whether public or private, or simply reconfiguring lot lines. The Planning Board endorses ANRs certifying that approval under the Town’s Subdivision Regulations is not required.
You must first determine whether you have sufficient land to meet the applicable requirements in the Zoning Bylaw to be subdivided. Consult the Zoning By-Law to determine the required lot size in your zoning district. Contact a local surveyor or engineer to determine whether your property meets the requirements and to draw up a certified site plan. You must also ensure your new lot(s) have at least 20 feet of frontage along an existing road to provide access.
If you are interested in potentially subdividing a lot, we recommend that you meet with the Planning and Building Departments to discuss your plans. An ANR application can be found here.
Major Impact Projects are large-scale proposals that receive additional design review prior to going through the zoning process. Design Advisory Teams (DATs) are created to review the projects and are made up of Planning Board members, neighborhood representatives and other local design professionals. The applicant works with the DAT to refine their design. All recent Major Impact Projects have their own webpage which can be found here.
Recent Town Meeting zoning amendments are listed on this page and describe the warrant article proposal and the outcome of the Town Meeting vote. For more detailed information, visit the Town Clerk’s page where the full warrant for each Town Meeting can be found with detailed descriptions and records of votes.
Visit the Climate Action webpage or contact Senior Planner Maria Morelli.
Meeting minutes for all Boards and Commissions are located in the Agenda and Minutes section of this site. You can search by board and by date.
Contact the Building Department for all enforcement related issues regarding construction and work sites. Visit their website or call 617-730-2100 to speak with the local building inspector assigned to the project.