The Winchester Board of Appeals is a group of appointed volunteers who serve together as an entity of town government. The Board has authority to regulate certain aspects of property, houses, and other structures under the Winchester Zoning Bylaw, the Winchester Code of Bylaws, and the Massachusetts Zoning Act. These aspects include how property and buildings are used and certain dimensions and other characteristics.
This summary does not cover the full range of matters within the Board’s reach. Instead, it focuses on the most common cases. Those are instances in which the Zoning Enforcement Officer has decided that Board review is required under the Zoning Bylaw before a project can go forward. In such situations, an application by the owner to the Board leads to a public hearing to discuss the project.
The hearing can span one or more meetings. Notice of the hearing is given to owners of abutting and nearby properties. They and other members of the public may send written comments and speak at the hearing to support or oppose the project. After the hearing, the Board members vote whether to approve the proposal. Their decision can be appealed to a Massachusetts court by a property owner who disputes a refusal to permit the project or by an abutter who objects to a grant of permission.
A large role in the process is played by three volunteer bodies of the town: the Planning Board, the Design Review Committee, and the Historical Commission. In their own public meetings, they review information about the project from the applicant, the abutters, and other members of the public. They then develop comments and recommendations. Their recommendations are often useful to the Board in deciding whether to permit the project. The Board, however, is not bound by the received recommendations. In response to the reviewing bodies and to concerns aired at meetings, changes may be made to the project, as long as they do not result in a substantial redesign.
Typical projects for which Board approval is needed
Situations that require approval by the Board are set forth in the Zoning Bylaw. The Zoning Bylaw also provides standards to be applied to the project by the Board in exercising its discretion whether to approve. Many projects don’t need approval by the Board because they satisfy the requirements of the Zoning Bylaw. Such projects are said to be “of right”. Permission of the Board is necessary in four situations within the scope of this summary. They are as follows:
Special Permits. In some cases, the Zoning Bylaw allows specific exceptions to its rules based on a grant of a Special Permit under stated criteria. For example, a Special Permit can authorize a property to be used for a home office in certain districts.
Variances. An outright violation of a provision of the Zoning Bylaw may be allowed by the grant of a Variance. The criteria for Variances, however, are so strict that Variances are infrequently sought and rarely approved.
Site Plan Approval. The size of proposed buildings or the amount of regrading required for a project may prompt concerns by the neighborhood and the town about projects that could otherwise be done “of right”. Under the Zoning Bylaw, such cases may require site plan approval by the Board based on consideration of the existing and proposed layout of the site, landscaping, impervious areas, context with respect to nearby properties, and stormwater management.
Appeals of Decisions of the Zoning Enforcement Officer. Any decision, interpretation, or enforcement by the Zoning Enforcement Officer is subject to appeal by parties who have an interest in the matter and dispute the action of the Zoning Enforcement Officer.
The reach of the Board of Appeals generally does not extend to properties in the town’s Central Business District. Review of projects there is within the purview of the Planning Board.
Notice of and Participation in the Board of Appeals Process
Consistent with the law, the town gives only limited notice about hearings before the Board of Appeals. For the first session of the hearing on a matter, notice is published in a newspaper of general circulation, posted on the town website, and mailed to a small number of nearby property owners. No other notices are sent directly to property owners for subsequent sessions of the Board of Appeals hearing or for the relevant public meetings of the Planning Board, Design Review Committee, and Historical Commission. For the process to work effectively and smoothly, this barebones notice protocol puts the burden of frequently checking the town website squarely on abutters, the public, and even the applicant. Because the public meetings of the Planning Board, the Design Review Committee, and the Historical Commission are scheduled ahead of the opening of the Board of Appeals hearing on a given matter, it is important to watch the government calendar on the town website for online meeting schedules and agendas of those three bodies in addition to the Board of Appeals.
No direct contact with members of the Board
Given its quasi-judicial work, the Board’s policy is for communication with members of the Board to be done only through the Clerk of the Board. No party may communicate directly with any member of the Board by any mode on any matter that is actively before the Board.
[This discussion is informal and of limited scope.]