As you may know, we purchased a single family property at 74 Burt St in Dorchester with the hopes to build a larger apartment building on that very lot. For this week's Wolly Wednesday, I thought I should share our experience with the process so far.
ALMOST anytime you want to build something in Boston like a house, an addition, a deck, dormering a roof, adding sq footage, finishing a basement, or adding a bathroom, you're going to have to go through an extensive, timely and expensive permitting process. It sounds crazy... and that's because it kind of is most of the time. The zoning code generally is not conducive for building or development. As a matter of fact, in most neighborhoods, the existing homes don't conform to today's building code requirements. For example, the three family home I live in currently would not be allowed to be built "by-right". So... how do you build anything in Boston if you need zoning relief???
The quick and dirty answer is that you need the city and the local neighborhood association to grant you permission to build a building that doesn't conform with the local zoning code. These "permissions" are known as variances and special permits. What's the difference? CambridgeMA.gov explains it well. "A variance is required when the action desired violates the dimensional requirements or use provisions of the Zoning Ordinance. A special permit is required for those cases where a particular use is permitted but only after certain conditions are met". For example, if the zoning code only allows buildings to be 31 ft tall and you want to propose a 39 ft tall building, you need a variance for building height. If the zoning code says cars aren't allowed to park within 5 ft of the lot line, and you need them to park within 2 ft, then you need a special permit. So... how do you get special permits and variances approved?
We like to identify what we think we could build, and then informally present the idea to the neighbors. Remember, you want them on your side. In this case for 74 Burt St, we think we can build a six family home. We sit directly next to a 24 unit apartment building, and most of the homes on our street are 3-family homes that are 3-3.5 stories tall. Our proposed building will have one floor of garage parking and two floors of living space with three units on each floor. Our building will be wider than most of the 3-family homes however it won't stand out as a skyscraper next to the neighbors. Because we somewhat "fit in" with the neighborhood, we feel confident this building can get approved. We put together a flyer, knocked on some doors and spoke with the neighbors.
Most of them welcomed us to the neighborhood and liked the idea of the project. Only one neighbor in particular heavily opposed the project and profusely cussed us out for ten minutes. That's OK though, he is entitled to an opinion. After speaking with a handful of neighbors, we're going to adjust the look of our building somewhat before we formally present it for zoning relief. The original proposal was larger than 6 units.
As a developer if you feel confident at this point, you then submit a set of architectural plans and a building permit to the City of Boston. This is where we're at with 74 Burt St. The city will then review the plans for approximately 30-60 days, and deny your building application because the project doesn't meet zoning code requirements. Once you have your rejection letter, you appeal the city's decision and start the process with the neighborhood association. You flyer the neighborhood and have an "abutter's meeting". This is where the neighbors come over and see photos and proposed plans for what you want to build. Generally a representative from the mayor's office is there along with your architect and attorney. You can field responses from the neighborhood in the event you want to appease them and make adjustments to your plans.
Once you've had your abutter's meeting, you can then formally present at the neighborhood association for the entire neighborhood. Each association does things slightly differently so you want to work with a local attorney who is well versed in your neighborhood. Over the course of 2-4 months, you'll present your project 2-3 times with the neighborhood association and they will vote to either approve or deny your proposal. IF YOU GET APPROVED by the neighborhood association, then you will propose your project in front of Boston's Zoning Board of Appeals or ZBA. They will ask you questions and vote to approve or deny your proposal. All in all, this process typically takes 9-12 months to get ZBA approval. It's not uncommon for it to take 18-24 months depending on the size of project. There is a lot of risk is purchasing property with the intent to permit it for something larger, however that's what the larger money making deals look like. And in this extremely hot market, it's becoming one of the better ways to make any real money as a developer.
We hope you enjoyed this educational write up. If you have any questions, please don't hesitate to give us a call or email. We're always willing to meet for coffee or walk you through a project.