Many homeowners do not realize that making structural changes to a nonconforming house usually involves a legal process for approval. In a February 8, 2019 Massachusetts zoning case, the Supreme Judicial Court examined a law that exempts preexisting nonconforming structures from local zoning ordinances and bylaws in some situations when they are extended or altered.
The defendants in the case owned the second floor condominium unit in a two-unit house. They sought to modify the roof of the house and add a dormer, thereby providing an additional by 677 square feet of living space. It would also increase the preexisting nonconforming floor ratio area of the house, which presently exceeded the maximum allowed under the local bylaw. As such, the defendants were required to apply for a special permit from the zoning board.
Many of the defendants’ neighbors, including the plaintiffs, appeared at the public hearing to oppose the permit. The defendants presented evidence that the majority of the houses on their street already had partial or full third stories and were taller than the defendants’ existing building. Town officials also noted that the proposed project would make the house appear more consistent, both in height and in design, with the others on the street.