How Boston's savvy sidestep zoning

Every building in the US is zoned like its neighborhood: single-family residential, highrise apartments, or maybe industrial. Zoning maintains neighborhood character and uniformity.

But zoning’s dirtiest secret is that it’s optional. If you play the system, you can bend the rules through a variance, a pen-and-paper application that excludes your property from the law applying to your neighbors.

Because these variances can be very valuable, the property owner often pays an attorney thousands to argue with the board on their behalf.

To see how likely the board is to accept a variance, I took the last eight years of variance appeals and broke them down.

Show me permits that ...

0 permits were similar (reject rate -%)

Submitting a variance application in Boston usually takes a long time. Only 10% of permits submitted to the ZBA take less than 3 months, while the slowest 10% of permits take over a year.

The median application gets a decision in 140 days. If the board or applicant defers the meeting, it’ll take way longer. One deferral averages 290 days, and two or more means longer than a year.