How Do I Make a Zoning Change or Exception?

A legal overview of re-zoning, variances and conditional use permits in Rhode Island

Zoning refers to a set of regulations adopted by a Rhode Island municipality—i.e., a city or town—to govern land use and development within its borders. State law requires all municipalities to establish its own planning board or commission to oversee local zoning. These boards and commissions, in turn, establish different types of zoning districts, each with their own permissible land uses and structures. In the city of Providence, for instance, there are multiple types of residential, commercial, industrial, downtown, waterfront, open space and special purpose districts.

The Different Types of Zoning Applications

Each zoning district has certain permitted uses, which are uses the owner is allowed by right. But when an owner wants to use their property for something other than a permitted use, that typically requires filing an application with the local zoning board or commission—or, in some cases, the town or city council. Every municipality has its own specific rules, but here are some of the more common applications that landowners can file:

  • Zoning and Text Map Amendments: This is a request to rezone a particular parcel of land, such as changing a property from industrial to commercial, or from one type of residential zone to another.
  • Special Use (or Conditional) Permits: A special use is one that requires permission from the zoning or municipal authority, but stops short of actually rezoning the property. Generally speaking, a special use is one that would have a significant impact on the surrounding neighborhood and does not qualify as a use allowed by right.
  • Temporary Use Permits:  A temporary use is generally a one-time event that would otherwise violate a local zoning ordinance, such as holding a block party in a residential neighborhood.
  • Variances: A variance is basically permission to depart from the permitted uses of a given zone. The owner usually needs to demonstrate that the property cannot yield any “beneficial use” if it is forced to conform to the existing zoning requirements. A variance may also be granted to depart from dimensional zoning requirements, such as restrictions on building heights.
  • Administrative Modifications: These refer to requests for relief from certain zoning requirements that do not rise to the level of a variance. For example, if the owner of a building wanted to seek a reduction in the number of parking spaces required by a local zoning ordinance, she might be able to request an administrative modification.

It is important to file an application for a zoning change or exception with the appropriate municipal authority. There are often highly technical requirements that need to be met before an application is granted, so it is often in a landowner's business interest to seek advice from an experienced Rhode Island real estate attorney beforehand. Also note that if an application is denied for any reason, there may be an appeal procedure available to seek review.

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