Getting Variances to Self-Build Single Family Home in Boston

5 Replies

My plan is to self-build a single family home for myself in Allston/Brighton and I found a parcel of land with a shack on it. The owner expressed interest in selling to me and I am going to negotiate a contract where we set the price, but I don't buy until after I get the variances approved. It is zoned for residential and I could fit a small house on it, but because it doesn't meet the minimum lot size requirement, it would also violate other dimensional requirements. Once built, the house would fit in with the neighborhood since many existing houses and parcels violate the current requirements in a similar manner.

I visited the zoning clinic and understood the general idea that I need to draw up plans and convince the neighbors and other residents that show up to my appeal hearing. I plan to do as much as I can myself, but I realize some things need to be done by licensed professionals. I am going back to the zoning clinic to gain a more detailed understanding, but I am also seeking any advice or insight from the awesome BiggerPockets community on any part of this process, especially how to get the variances. Thanks in advance!

The building division does permits and zoning and they have what they call a "zoning clinic" where an inspector helps you navigate the zoning process. Sorry, I did not realize it was specific to Boston. I have gone twice and spoke with a different person each time. I was rushed both times, with my questions only half answered and sometimes received conflicting answers between the two visits.

@Jeff M. "zoning clinic"?

That's a huge resource even if it's rushed! Mike

Former city planner here. Ask what elements of the property are grandfathered under the zoning. You may indeed need a variance for setbacks, height, lot coverage or footprint, but fundamentally, that "shack" is a SFR on a legal, nonconforming lot. Building a bigger house may not comply with a lot of the new regulations, but ask if there is an administrative variance or if you actually need to go through the full-blown hearings with input from the neighbors.

Sometimes, if you keep the original footprint of the foundation and add on to it, it could be considered an addition, not new. That could work around some of the variances.

Find an original plat or ask whether there's a recent survey of the property in the file. Sometimes, if the old lots are within x square feet of the new lot size regulations, they can approve it administratively.

Walk around the neighborhood and take photos of other recent SFR builds. Ask to look at those or similar variance files and look through the process that they went through. You'll get a great sense of how the process went for them.

What you might really benefit from to finalize your RE transaction is a letter from the city stating that your plans for an expanded SFR would gain approval if it meets x, y, and z criteria (listed in their code). That can get you a level of assurance to finalize the sale and give you time to design the home you really want. Good luck.

P.S. If you're not finding enough time in the clinic, ask to make an appointment with a planner.

Wow, thank you for all of the info! I'll look into the administrative variance or original foundation option as well as a plot/survey. Not much in the way of recent SFR in the neighborhood, but that's a great idea about asking for a criteria letter and scheduling an appointment. I can't believe I didn't think of that!

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