Zoning bylaws essentially  divide a town into different zones, or “districts,” each with its own regulations about what can or cannot be built there. Towns are not required to have zoning bylaws, but those that do must have a zoning map which depicts the boundaries of each district. Once you know the district in which your project is located, you can consult the written zoning bylaw, or “code,” to determine which uses are allowed there (i.e. residential, commercial, etc.) and what restrictions may apply. 

For an example, let’s say we are trying to build an ADU in the town of Randolph, Vermont. Here is the zoning map . You will see large swaths of color-coded areas, each labeled something like “RA” or “RES” or “GCR.” Pick a spot on the map for our hypothetical project to be located. Once you do, follow the color-coding to the legend (usually at the bottom) which will tell you which district your project is located in. This abbreviation will correspond to a section in Randolph’s zoning bylaw.  Let’s say we live in “RES.” In the Randolph zoning bylaw we see that “RES” is short for “Residential District.” Navigate to the Residential District page.

There are two major categories of regulation that apply to each zoning district: Use Regulations and Dimensional Standards. 

Use Regulations define what types of buildings and activities are allowed in a given district. At its simplest, use regulations will define which districts are suitable for homes, businesses, or industrial facilities. However, many bylaws will be much more specific about what types of homes and businesses are allowed where. As ADUs become increasingly common, most zoning bylaws have started listing them as their own use category.

Most bylaws will have a table or bulleted list of uses for each district. Find the entry for ADUs in your district. You should see an abbreviation next to the entry. This abbreviation is what tells you whether you can get a permit for an ADU in your district, and, if so, whether you need to meet certain special conditions to obtain one. Here are the four most common categories, or “use classifications,” you may encounter: [SCREENSHOTS OF EXAMPLE BYLAW]

  • Permitted Use: This is the lowest barrier to entry, typically abbreviated as “P” or “Y.” If your project conforms to the minimum requirements of the bylaw, it will be issued a permit.
    • When a certain type of development is permitted outright in a given district, it is sometimes referred to as “as-of-right.” However, the developer must still apply for a zoning permit even if their project is allowed “as-of-right.” The permitting process helps towns track development and ensure the project does not exceed what is allowed “as-of-right” in a given district.
  • Not Permitted: Typically abbreviated as “X” or “N,” meaning this use is not allowed in this district.
  • Site Plan: Often abbreviated as “SP.” This means you must submit a site plan design for your project to your town’s Development Review Board or other equivalent body specified by the bylaw. Towns often require site plan approval in order to ensure that design elements such as lighting and vehicle access will not create a nuisance or an unnecessary burden on public infrastructure..
  • Conditional Use/Conditional Use Approval: Typically abbreviated as “C” or “CU.” This requires that your proposed ADU meet several local criteria in order to be permitted. The conditions for permitting should be laid out explicitly in the bylaw. 

The second major category of zoning regulation is Dimensional Standards. These dictate the minimum and maximum permitted sizes of structures, where those structures can be located on your lot, and the minimum lot size required to build a given structure. Here is a non-exhaustive list of dimensional standards you should be aware of when planning a project:

  • Minimum lot size: The smallest lot area required to build a new structure.
  • Setback: The required buffer distance between your structure and your front, rear, and side property lines.
  • Frontage: The length of your property line that borders or “fronts on” a road.

Other types of dimensional standards that are less common in VT and NH, but may apply in your town, include:

  • Height limits: The maximum allowable building height.
  • Steep slope restrictions: The maximum grade (i.e. steepness) of land you are allowed to build on.
  • Lot coverage limits: More common in urban or downtown settings, this dictates the maximum footprint a building may take up on a given lot.

Some older bylaws, like Randolph’s, will not have “Accessory Dwelling Unit” listed under uses in certain districts. This does NOT mean that you can’t build an ADU. More than likely, it means that you need a conditional use approval from the Development Review Board. Talk to your local zoning administrator if you have any questions.

Next, the CONSTRUCTION phase.