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Variance or Special Permit

Inspectional Services

The Cambridge Zoning Ordinance regulates the development and use of real property in the City and is controlled by MGL 40A. Some uses and/or developments of real property may require relief from the Board of Zoning Appeal (BZA).

Additional Information

A Variance is required if the proposed use or development is prohibited by the Ordinance. A Special Permit is required where the proposed use or development is identified by the Ordinance as requiring one. A Comprehensive Permit is required for certain subsidized housing projects. The BZA also hears appeals of Zoning Determinations made by the Inspectional Services Department.

What Zone is a particular property located in and what uses are allowed?

For general information concerning the zone a particular property is located in, a zoning map is available for reference in the lobby of the Inspectional Services Department at 831 Massachusetts Avenue. For precise determinations, members of the public are advised to base such interpretations upon both the language found in the Zoning Ordinance itself and additional descriptive information on file in the City Clerk's office. The uses allowed in a particular zone as well as the dimensional requirements can be obtained from the appropriate table in the Zoning Ordinance. A copy of the Zoning Ordinance is available for review at ISD or one can be purchased at the City Clerk's office.

When does one need a variance or special permit?

The Zoning Ordinance describes when a variance or special permit is required. 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. The Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) is the authority that holds public hearings and decides whether to grant or deny a variance or special permit. The BZA also hears appeals of zoning related decisions made by the Commissioner of Inspectional Services (Superintendent of Buildings). It should be noted that Planning Board is also a hearing authority for certain special permit matters as defined in the Zoning Ordinance. Information concerning Planning Board matters can be obtained by contacting the Community Development Department.

How does one apply for a hearing from the BZA?

BZA hearing application is online at the Citizen Access Portal. Upon receipt of the completed application together with all necessary documentation, a hearing date will be scheduled. Because of the generally large backlog of cases and the requirement to advertise the public hearing in advance, the earliest a hearing might be scheduled could be as much as 60 days from acceptance of the completed application. Payment of a fee depending on the kind of relief sought is required. The BZA generally meets every two weeks on Thursday evenings.

How does one support or object to an application for relief before the BZA?

Members of the public are advised of the hearings before the BZA in various ways, e.g.; cases are advertised in a local newspaper for two consecutive weeks, notice boards are posted at the property, and abutters are given notice by mail. Those desiring to express their views to the BZA can send a letter to the Board at 831 Massachusetts Avenue, send a fax (349-6132), or appear in person at the hearing.

How long does it usually take for the BZA decision to be filed with the City Clerk?

After the hearing by the BZA, a number of internal actions are required before the decision is filed with the City Clerk. These include preparation of the transcript, drafting and review of the decision, and signature by the BZA Chairperson. Depending on the backlog of cases, this could take up to six weeks. After the decision is signed by the BZA Chairperson, it is date stamped and filed at the City Clerk's office. An original decision is then sent by certified mail to the petitioner. By State statute there is a 20 day appeal period following the filing with the City Clerk to allow for the possibility of parties in interest to appeal the decision to the Courts. If the decision is appealed, a building permit cannot be issued until the matter is resolved by the Courts.

What does the petitioner do with their BZA decision after the appeals period has expired?

After the twenty calendar day appeal period has expired, the petitioner must bring the original BZA decision to the City Clerk's office located at City Hall for signature. The decision is then brought to the Middlesex County Court at 208 Cambridge Street and filed with the Registry of Deeds. After the decision has been filed, the petitioner must bring a copy of the stamped decision to the Zoning Secretary at the Inspectional Services Department for filing. No building permits can be issued until this is completed. Thus, the time period between the date the application for relief is accepted by ISD and issuance of a building permit, assuming there are no continuances at the BZA hearing and there is not an appeal filed, can be 4 1/2 months or longer.

When must the rights under a variance or special permit be exercised?

The rights under a variance must be exercised within 1 year and within 2 years for a special permit.

Page was last modified on 7/28/2022 3:18 PM
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