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Issues in Land Use Law & Zoning

Special Permits: What They Are & How They Are Used

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Communities frequently use a flexible approach to land use regulation that allows development decisions to be made on a “special permit” basis. I want to briefly discuss just what special permits are, and then comment on some of the standards local boards employ when reviewing special permit applications.

Special permits appear in various forms. Most common are “special exceptions,” suggested by the Standard State Zoning Enabling Act drafted in 1926. The same device may be termed a conditional use permit, or a special use permit in your community.

What are special permits? Special permits are approvals given to uses that meet certain standards or conditions which are listed in the local zoning ordinance. The conditions are often designed to ensure that the use will not adversely affect nearby, existing uses. Special permits are commonly employed to protect residential neighborhoods against potentially disruptive uses — uses which might generate substantial amounts of noise, odor, or traffic, or which might in some other way be incompatible with the neighborhood. For this reason, uses such as gas stations and convenience stores often require special permits.

Local governments are also increasingly coming to require special permits for major development proposals. This allows the local government, typically through its zoning board, increased flexibility in examining the impacts of large-scale uses, and the ability to impose conditions to lessen adverse impacts. Projects such as shopping centers or office parks are particularly likely to require special permits.

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