Land UseThe Special Use Permit: Application and Hearing Assistance from a Zoning Attorney

September 14, 20200

In Rhode Island, each municipality has its own planning board and zoning board to hear and decide upon land use and zoning applications. The zoning boards create zoning ordinances for each city or town, which divide the town into zones based on the uses allowed in each zone. Below, we’ll look at special-use permit applications and explain why a zoning attorney is a useful tool in permit approval.

State Law on Special Use Permits

By law, zoning ordinances must include opportunities to seek special use permits. These permits must be issued by the zoning board of review in each town and the ordinances must delineate the procedure for issuing them. The ordinances must also specify the uses that require a special use permit, establish criteria to meet for issuance of a special-use permit, provide for public hearings on these matters and for any appeals, and provide recordings of the findings of fact and written decisions. If a special use permit also seeks a necessary dimensional variance, the two items are considered together by the zoning board of review.

What are Special Use Permits and Variances?

In general, special use permits allow a person or business to use the property for particular purposes outside of the zoning uses allowable by right. This is provided that the use meets certain conditions. Usually, the conditions require that the proposed use or activity does not negatively impact the surrounding area and its uses.

One common example is a home business. While the area in which a home sits is most likely residential, special use permits allow one to run a business out of their home. Another example is a church within a residential zone. Special uses are allowed on a case-by-case basis at the discretion of the zoning board of review. Variances are generally granted because of some hardship and allow one to do something that is otherwise prohibited, such as allowing for a building inside the minimum setback or allowing a smaller parking lot than the ordinances require.

A Good Example

One example of how a zoning attorney can assist with obtaining permits is a recent case from Pawtucket. The city’s zoning ordinances provide for variances and special use permits in Section 410. According to the ordinance, any proposed special use must be specifically listed in the ordinance, must meet all of the listed criteria, and must “not alter the general character of the surrounding area” or “impair the intent or purpose. . .” of the ordinance or the city’s Comprehensive Plan.

Recently, a business was seeking only a special use permit to allow it to conduct pharmaceutical manufacturing in an “Industrial Open” zone. It wanted to begin producing and cultivating medical marijuana. The property in question bordered a residential zone.

After a hearing on the matter by the city’s zoning board of review, the special use permit was denied due to the fact that the applicant did not provide sufficient proof that the proposed use would not alter the character of the surrounding area and would impair the intent of the comprehensive plan. The city stated that the use “would have a detrimental effect upon the public health, safety, morals, and welfare of the surrounding area[,]” which includes a track and sports field used by local children and sports and teams. The applicant appealed to the RI Superior Court, which upheld the zoning board of review decision.

How a Zoning Attorney Can Help You

Special use permit applications are a perfect example of one area of law for which having a zoning attorney is helpful. Zoning attorneys generally have experience with a wide range of applications and requests, even in the city or town in which you are looking to apply for a permit. These attorneys are familiar with the process and with meeting all of the requirements. A zoning attorney can suggest ways to demonstrate the proposed use or activity meets the municipality’s criteria.

For assistance throughout the process of applying for a special use permit, Desautel Browning Law’s land use, zoning, and permitting law experts are available to provide zoning attorney advising for obtaining permits and avoiding legal issues while doing so. Call 401.477.0023 or email us at to schedule a consultation today.

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