Planning Dept. Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
- How do I find affordable housing?
You are encouraged to subscribe to the town’s Affordable Housing Notification Email List for timely notification of new affordable housing opportunities of Town's deed-restricted units. You can do this from our Housing Search page, which also includes many other regional and state resources.
- What buildings in Brookline are subject to review for demolition delay?
All buildings in Brookline are potentially subject to a demolition delay. If a proposal for work on a building meets the definition of complete or partial demolition, then the building will be reviewed for its historical and architectural significance.
- What qualifies a project as demolition?
For the most part, demolition includes removing or covering 25% or more of the square footage of the building’s exterior sides and roof, removing or covering one side of a building, removing the roof, or significantly altering the shape of the roof. Please vie the Planning Examples of Partial Demolition illustrative drawings for examples of how partial demolition is determined, and see below for demolition of buildings designated as historic.
- Who reviews a building for its historical and architectural significance?
If proposed work qualifies a building for demolition delay review, the Preservation Commission staff, with the oversight of the Brookline Preservation Commission, makes an initial determination of historical and architectural significance within 10 business days after a complete application form has been submitted.
- What happens when a building is assigned an initial determination of significance?
The Preservation Commission will hold a public hearing to determine whether it will uphold the initial determination of significance. If upheld, the commission will impose a demolition delay on the building for a period of up to 12 months, or 18 months for a National or State Register property.
- How do I know if a National or State Register-listed building requires demolition review?
The definition of demolition is more inclusive for buildings that have local, state or federal historic designations. Demolition of buildings listed, eligible for listing, or with a preliminary determination of eligibility for listing in the State or National Registers of Historic Places or located within State or National Register districts are automatically determined to be initially significant.
Generally, proposed work that includes the systematic removal, effacement or destruction of the exterior architectural elements which define or contribute to the historic character of a building might qualify the project for review. This may include, but is not limited to removing or altering windows, siding, chimneys and decorative elements.
- What is the process for making changes to my home in a Local Historic District?
For any proposed exterior work on a home located in one of Brookline's Local Historic Districts, you must apply for a Certificate by completing this application. The Preservation staff will work with you to determine which type of Certificate will apply to your type of work and whether this work can be approved at the staff level or will require the approval of the Preservation Commission. If a building is located in a Local Historic District, the applicant should refer to the Design Guidelines for Local Historic Districts for an understanding of the regulations and guidelines for approved work. In almost all cases, the Preservation Commission will not approve demolition of buildings in Local Historic Districts.
- What is a demolition delay? Why do I have to wait to demolish my house?
A demolition delay is a hold that prohibits any demolition permits from being issued for a property for a specified amount of time. In Brookline, a demolition stay is triggered when any full or partial demolition is proposed on a house that is found to be historically/architecturally significant. For most properties, the demolition stay is issued for 12 months. For properties listed on the National or State Register of Historic Places, the demolition stay is 18 months.
The purpose of a demolition stay is to give the applicant time to consider alternatives to demolition. If an applicant would like to lift their demolition stay early, they can work with the Preservation Commission to submit a design and go through a design review process. The demolition stay thus serves as an incentive for applicants to work with the Commission to improve the quality of new construction or partial new construction.
- Where can I find historic images, maps, plans, etc. of my house or any building in Brookline?
The Preservation staff recommends that you try searching online in the MACRIS (Massachusetts Cultural Resource Information System) for inventory forms and photos of historic buildings. You can also visit the Brookline Room in the Brookline Public Library for archival information, atlases, town records, etc.
- What is zoning and why does my project require zoning relief?
Zoning is a tool used by municipalities to dictate the allowed uses, types, massing, scaling and density of development in a given area. Brookline’s Zoning By-Law incorporates a written code (describing setbacks, heights, allowed uses, densities, etc.) and a map which indicates which geographic areas are subject to which zoning guidelines.
Your proposed project may require zoning relief if your proposed changes or proposed use do not meet the requirements of the Zoning By-Law or if your home is a pre-existing non-conforming structure. You can consult the Zoning By-Law to determine if your proposal conforms to the By-Law or consult with staff in the Building Department. The Building Commissioner or Deputy Building Commissioner ultimately determines what zoning relief is needed for any proposed project.
- What is a pre-existing non-conforming use?
A pre-existing non-conforming structure is a structure that complied with zoning and development regulations at the time it was built but which, because of subsequent changes to the zoning and/or development regulations, no longer fully complies with those regulations.
- What is an “as-of-right” project?
An “as of right” project is one that does not require zoning relief. If your proposal meets all zoning requirements, you can proceed with a Building Permit.
- Why do I need zoning relief if my structure is non-conforming?
Under Section 8.02 of Brookline’s Zoning By-Law, a special permit is required if you are extending a pre-existing non-conformity, such as increasing the building footprint of a structure that already is located within an allowed setback.
In a Planning Board or Zoning Board of Appeals hearing regarding a single- or two-family home, you may hear reference to the Deadrick decision or a "Section 6" finding, which is a basis for applicants to demonstrate whether pre-existing non-conformities can be extended if no new non-conformities are created and if the ZBA finds that the extended non-conformities will not be substantially more detrimental to the neighborhood.
- What are special permits and variances and what is the process?
Both are types of zoning relief. A Special Permit is required where the proposed use or development is identified by the Zoning By-Law as requiring one. Special permits will be outlined in the tables and text of the By-Law as available for certain uses or certain dimensional exceptions if the ZBA finds that the applicant meets specific criteria.
A variance is required if the proposed use or development is prohibited by the By-Law. The applicant must prove that there is uniqueness to their lot whereby a literal interpretation of the By-Law would cause a hardship warranting an exception from the Zoning By-Law. The application process for variances and special permits are the same.
- What is the difference between the Planning Board and the Zoning Board of Appeals?
The Planning Board and Zoning Board of Appeals both serve different functions in Brookline. The Planning Board is a 7 member board that consists of design professionals. The Planning Board reviews and offers recommendations to the ZBA on all zoning cases. It also guides the physical growth and development of the Town through the adoption and implementation of a master plan, consideration of zoning bylaw amendments, and evaluation and recommendation on land use changes, development projects and the siting of wireless telecommunication facilities on private property. The Planning Board also conducts design review for signage and building facades, and appoints Design Advisory Teams to review Major Impact Projects.
The Board of Appeals is the Town’s permit granting authority that is responsible for reviewing and approving applications for relief by special permit and by variance from the requirements of the Zoning By-Law, in accordance with the “Massachusetts Zoning Act” - Massachusetts General Laws, Chapter 40A. 3 board members sit for each hearing and a unanimous vote is required for zoning relief to be granted. The ZBA also hears administrative appeals of Building Commissioner decisions or of ZBA decisions.
- How long does a special permit or variance process take?
The process for a special permit or variance can take up to six months in total, depending on the complexity of the project.
- How can I find out what zoning district my home or property is located in?
We recommend using the interactive property information map to determine the zoning district for a particular parcel. Enter the address at the top right window or zoom into the map to find your property. Then, use your cursor to click on the property. An information panel will open up, and you can scroll down to see the Zoning District information. Once you know your zoning district, you can refer to the Zoning By-Law for the requirements of that district.
- What is Floor Area Ratio (FAR) and how do I calculate it?
Floor Area Ratio (FAR) is tool used to regulate lot coverage and density. It is a ratio of the gross floor area in a structure to the land area of its lot. It is calculated by dividing the gross floor area by the total lot size. FAR accounts for the entire floor area of a building, not simply the building's footprint. Buildings with varying numbers of stories may have the same FAR value. For example, the FAR of a 1,000-square-foot building with one story situated on a 4,000-square-foot lot would be 0.25. A two-story building on the same lot, where each floor was 500 square feet, would have the same FAR. FAR limits for zoning districts in Brookline can be found in Chapter 5, Table of Dimensional Requirements.
- Do my plans need to be drawn by a registered architect?
The Planning Department recommends that plans be drafted by a registered architect for accuracy. However, if your project is for a single or two-family home, a registered architect is not required. For any other structure, plans must be stamped by a registered architect licensed in Massachusetts. All applications also require a site plan/land survey stamped by a registered land surveyor.
- Do I need an attorney to file an application with a Board or Commission?
An attorney is not a requirement. Applications can be submitted by an attorney on behalf of an applicant, by the property owner or by a representative of the owner such as an architect or contractor.
However, it is important that you understand what action you are requesting from the Board or Commission and how you qualify for it. If you do not understand the Bylaw or what you need from the Board, a lawyer or other representative may be able to help you. You may also want a lawyer or representative to present your case before the Board if you do not feel comfortable doing so yourself. Staff is also available to help answer questions on the process.
- I would like to put a shed/detached garage/AC condenser/generator on my property. Is this allowed?
These types of structures are considered “accessory structures” and must be located at least six feet from side and rear property lines and at least six feet from the main structure on the lot. Accessory structures are not permitted in the front yard setback. If you require a setback less than six feet, a special permit is required.
- I would like to add an in-law suite or accessory apartment to my home. Can I do this?
The Town of Brookline does allow accessory dwelling units provided that they comply with a variety of requirements. These requirements may be found in the Zoning By-law under Section 4.05. Accessory Dwelling Units are only allowed in single-family homes or accessory buildings on such properties (like a garage).
- What are the regulations pertaining to signage for my business?
Sign and façade alterations in commercial districts are subject to the signage regulations outlined in Section 7 of the Zoning By-Law and vary based on zoning district. Sign and Façade Design Review usually takes place at Planning Board morning meetings, often once a month. Some sign alterations may be able to be approved by staff. To discuss your signage plans, see the Department Services FAQ page.
- My neighbor is proposing a project that I am concerned about. What can I do?
Public comment is welcome at all Planning Board, ZBA, and Preservation Commission hearings unless otherwise noted. Residents are able to speak in favor or in opposition of a project. Our Boards are especially interested in hearing about specific conditions that may assist them in making a decision with regards to the specific zoning relief being requested; approval decisions often include special conditions specific to the property, adjacent conditions, or to mitigate future conditions.
If you cannot attend the hearing in person, you can submit written comment in advance. Please refer to this Services FAQ page to find the appropriate staff person to send your comments to. All public comment is submitted to the Board members prior to the hearing for their consideration and Boards consider these comments in rendering their decision. If you would like to see the plans for a project prior to a hearing, please contact staff.
- How do I learn about Major Impact projects and Design Advisory Teams?
Major Impact Projects are large-scale proposals that receive additional design review prior to going through the zoning process. Design Advisory Teams (DATs) are created to review the projects and are made up of Planning Board members, neighborhood representatives and other local design professionals. The applicant works with the DAT to refine their design. All recent Major Impact Projects have their own webpage which you can see on our Current Projects page.
- What is a 40B project?
A project categorized as a “40B” refers to Chapter 40B of the Massachusetts General Laws, a state statute which enables local Zoning Boards of Appeals to approve affordable housing developments under flexible rules if at least 20-25% of the units have long-term affordability restrictions. These projects are also known as Comprehensive Permits.
Chapter 40B was enacted in 1969 to help address the shortage of affordable housing statewide by reducing unnecessary barriers created by local approval processes, local zoning, and other restrictions. The goal of Chapter 40B is to encourage the production of affordable housing in all cities and towns throughout the Commonwealth. The standard is for communities to provide a minimum of 10% of their housing inventory as affordable. Communities that have NOT met the 10% requirement are subject to 40B proposals which can waive local zoning requirements and apply more flexible zoning standards than non-40B projects.
To qualify for Chapter 40B, a development proposal must first be approved under a state or federal housing program, such as MassHousing, MassDevelopment, the Department of Housing and Community Development, or the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. At least 25% of the units must be affordable to lower income households who earn no more than 80% of the area median income (Alternatively, for rental housing, the project can provide 20% of the units to households below 50% of median income.)
For more info on 40B projects in Brookline, visit our Chapter 40B page.
- Where can I review past meeting minutes?
Meeting minutes for all Boards and Commissions supported by the Department of Planning & Community Development are located in the Agenda and Minutes section of this site. Additionally, individual Board and Commission pages often have links to meeting recordings, meeting materials, and background information.
- Where can I read zoning decisions on recent zoning cases?
The Planning Department maintains an online archive of all ZBA decisions dating back to 2013 here. If the ZBA decision you are looking for is older than 2013, please contact the Planning Department.
- The ZBA voted to approve my application. Now what?
There are a few steps left in the process after the ZBA votes to approve your proposal. Refer to the Planning Board & ZBA Process Guide for Applicants.
- There is construction taking place near me that is disruptive/causing a nuisance/does not seem to be following the plans/does not seem to have a work permit/etc. What can I do?
Contact the Building Department for all enforcement related issues regarding construction and work sites. Visit their website or call 617-730-2100 to speak with the local building inspector assigned to the project.
- Can I subdivide my lot? What is an ANR plan?
A subdivision is a division of land into two or more lots and involves the creation of a new road. An ANR (“approval not required”) is the division of land into lots with frontage on existing roads, whether public or private, or simply reconfiguring lot lines. The Planning Board endorses ANRs certifying that approval under the Town’s Subdivision Regulations is not required.
You must first determine whether you have sufficient land to meet the applicable requirements in the Zoning Bylaw to be subdivided. Consult the Zoning By-Law to determine the required lot size in your zoning district. Contact a local surveyor or engineer to determine whether your property meets the requirements and to draw up a certified site plan. You must also ensure your new lot(s) have at least 20 feet of frontage along an existing road to provide access.
If you are interested in potentially subdividing a lot, we recommend that you meet with the Planning and Building Departments to discuss your plans.
- How can I propose a zoning amendment?
Amendments to the Zoning By-Law or Zoning Map are voted on by Town Meeting. Proposals for amendments can be submitted as warrant articles. Town Meeting is held typically twice a year, once in May and again in November. The open warrant period usually begins in February for the spring Town Meeting and in August for the fall Town Meeting. Warrant articles must be submitted to the Select Board's Office before noon on the day the Warrant closes. Warrant articles submitted by citizens must be accompanied by 10 signatures of Brookline registered voters. It is recommended that proposed amendments be submitted to Town Counsel for prior review to ensure issues of legality or form are addressed. Additionally, Town Counsel will discuss zoning amendments with Building and Planning staff. We strongly recommend contacting the Planning Department at least two months prior to the Warrant closing date. For more information on this process, see our Submitting Articles page.
- How do I learn about Town Meeting zoning amendments?
Recent Town Meeting zoning amendments are listed on the Zoning By-Laws and Guidelines page and describe the warrant article proposal and the outcome of the Town Meeting vote. For more detailed information, visit the Town Meeting page where the full warrant for each Town Meeting can be found with detailed descriptions and records of votes.