Safety Issue Can Be “Hardship” Justifying A Zoning Variance

The Massachusetts standard for granting a zoning variance is notoriously difficult to meet.  In a nutshell it requires proof that: (1) due to circumstances concerning soil conditions, the shape of the lot, or the topography of the land; which (2) especially affect the land but not the zoning district generally; (3) literal enforcement of the zoning ordinance would cause a substantial hardship (financial or otherwise); and (4) relief can be granted without substantial detriment to the public good; (5) without nullifying or substantially derogating from the intent or purpose of the ordinance.  See M.G.L. c. 40A, § 10.  Each requirement must be met and the courts tell us variances should be “sparingly granted.”  As a result, while zoning boards issue variances with some frequency, the percentage of those variances that meet the standard and would survive judicial scrutiny is relatively small.  A new, easier-to-meet variance standard is a perennial feature of the zoning reform bills that are introduced each year in the Legislature and, so