Land UseZoning Law, Approval Requirements

July 1, 20200
What is Zoning Law?

Zoning law encompasses all of the regulations, or ordinances, that make up a given city or town’s rules for development in that municipality. These rules regulate the types of structures people and businesses can build, where each can be built, and the restrictions on how they are built. A seasoned legal team can work to help you get zoning approvals completed in a timely manner.

Zoning law begins with a comprehensive plan for development. Then, a map of the city or town is divided into different geographic areas, called zones. From there, each zone is assigned a classification. The classifications detail which type of development can occur in that zone. Generally, there are classifications for residential-only zones, industrial zones, commercial zones, open space, mixed use, and agricultural/farming, and these are sometimes further subdivided. In each zone, the zoning laws will specify which types of structures can gain zoning approval as well as any specific limitations on how each structure can be built. This includes minimum lot size and setbacks, maximum building size or height, minimum number of parking spaces, etc.

Zoning Approvals: By Right, Variances, and Conditional or Special Use Permits

Municipalities develop zoning ordinances in order to develop land responsibly. Zoning approval allows municipalities to manage the coexistence of different uses. In addition, zoning approval ordinances allow municipalities to develop procedures for the application approval process.

A zoning ordinance determines which developments are allowed “by right,” meaning they are reviewed and approved so long as they meet the requirements. It also lists which developments require additional review due to requests for relief from one or more of the requirements. For example, there are variances for waiver of certain requirements because of the unique physical aspects of a given lot. Also, a conditional or special use permit may be granted for applications requesting a use of land that is not allowed by right, but rather only if certain conditions are met.

If you are seeking to build a structure that meets all of the residential zoning requirements for the particular area in which you plan to build, the zoning approval process is fairly smooth. If instead, you are trying to construct a new building that deviates from the zoning requirements, your application will require additional review. A good example of this occurs when the structure exceeds the maximum building size for its lot.

An additional variance or special use permit review is conducted on a discretionary, case-by-case basis. North Kingstown uses the following process, for example:

First, the developer submits the application to the town’s department of planning and development. The application goes through a public hearing process before the Planning Board. The Planning Board then sends its findings and recommendations to the Zoning Board of Review. The findings and recommendations detail whether the application is consistent with the “goals and purposes of the [town] comprehensive plan.”

The Zoning Board of Review conducts a public hearing, after which it renders a decision on whether to approve or deny the variance or special use permit. The Zoning Board of Review may also attach conditions to the permit, requiring certain timelines or duration, adverse impact mitigation, public improvements, or other such conditional requirements.

Attorneys familiar with the zoning approval process, as well as R.I. case law that informs it, are adept at spotting any potential issues and determining the permits needed and the applications to submit. For questions related to zoning approvals, contact the knowledgeable attorneys at Desautel Browning Law today to discuss your planned developments. Send us an email or call at 401.477.0023.

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