NYC Zoning Handbook:
Administration

Chapter 12

The Department of Buildings, the Board of Standards and Appeals, and the City Planning Commission bear the major responsibility for administering the Zoning Resolution. In addition, the Department of Environmental Protection, the Department of Health and the Department of Ports and Trade are responsible for enforcement and administrative functions that relate to their operations.

Enforcement of the Resolution

Enforcement of the Zoning Resolution is primarily the responsibility of the Department of Buildings. The department reviews applications for building permits, issues certificates of occupancy, and makes all inspections relating to compliance with the Zoning Resolution.

The Department of Buildings has the following responsibilities.

  • Reviews applications for building permits, and grants them when the provisions of the Zoning Resolution and all other applicable federal, state and local laws are met;
  • Reviews applications for certificates of occupancy;
  • Interprets the provisions of the Zoning Resolution subject to appeal to the Board of Standards and Appeals and makes regulations for its enforcement and administration -- as, for example, in the case of accessory off-street parking facilities;
  • Maintains public records of all building permits and certificates of occupancy, decisions in appeals taken from the interpretations of the Department of Buildings, final actions in all applications to the Board of Standards and Appeals, and grants of the City Planning Commission for special permit actions;
  • Maintains records of specified non-conforming manufacturing uses subject to termination;
  • Orders, in writing, the remedying of any condition which is a violation of any provision of the Zoning Resolution; and
  • Prosecutes violations before the Environmental Control Board, or with the Law Department, before the courts.

Zoning Amendments

There are two types of zoning amendments: amendments to the zoning text and amendments to the zoning maps. Amendments may be initiated by the City Planning Commission under Section 200 of the New York City Charter or by a taxpayer, community board, borough board, Borough President, the City Council Land Use Committee or the Mayor under Section 201 of the Charter. Amendments to the zoning maps are subject to the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) contained in Section 197-c of the Charter; text amendments follow a similar review procedure but the City Planning Commission is not subject to time limitations.

Article 8 of the New York State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA), as implemented by City Environmental Quality Review (CEQR), requires that every proposed text or map change be assessed for its impact on the environment. This assessment can result in a determination prior to the public hearing process that the change (either as proposed or under specified conditions) generates no substantial environmental impacts, or it can require that the applicant prepare an environmental impact statement (EIS) prior to initiation of public hearings on the amendment. In the latter case, public hearings on the EIS generally occur concurrently with the charter-required public hearings on the amendment.

The procedure for amending the maps of the Zoning Resolution pursuant to Section 197-c of the Charter is briefly described below.

  1. An application for a map change is submitted to the City Planning Commission by a taxpayer, community or borough board, Borough President, the City Council Land Use Committee or the Mayor, or it is prepared by staff of the Department of City Planning.
  2. Within five days after receipt of an application, the department notifies the affected community board(s), Borough President and City Council and, for applications involving more than one community district, the borough board(s).
  3. When the Department of City Planning or the Commission finds that all information necessary for adequate evaluation of the proposal (including CEQR-mandated environmental reports) has been furnished by the applicant, it certifies that the application is complete. Within eight days after certification, the application is referred to the affected community and borough boards, the Borough President and the City Council.
  4. The community board holds a public hearing on the proposal and submits its recommendation to the Commission within 60 days after receipt of the application.
  5. The Borough President reviews the application and makes a recommendation to the Commission within the 30-day period after the community board review period. If the application involves land in more than one community board, the borough board may review it within the same period.
  6. Within 60 days after receipt of the recommendations of the Borough President, the Commission holds a public hearing on the proposal and adopts a favorable resolution which is filed with the City Council. If the Commission disapproves, the zoning map amendment is denied unless the Mayor certifies to the Council that such change is necessary. The amendment then requires a two-thirds vote of the Council to approve.
  7. The City Council must conduct a public hearing and may vote to approve, disapprove or modify the application within 50 days. Any proposal to modify is first sent back to the Commission to determine if it is within the scope of the action, as previously heard and approved by the Commission, and the environmental review.

Zoning text amendments initiated under Section 200 of the Charter by the City Planning Commission or by any taxpayer, community board, borough board, Borough President or the City Council Land Use Committee are not subject to ULURP but are subject to the City Environmental Quality Review (CEQR) procedure. When the preliminary work, including environmental studies, is complete, the Commission notifies the affected community and borough boards and Borough Presidents before scheduling a public hearing. There is no time period in which the Commission must act on a zoning text amendment. However, once the Commission, after a public hearing, adopts a favorable resolution and files it with the City Council, the Council has 50 days in which to hold a public hearing and adopt, modify or disapprove the resolution. (Otherwise, the Commission's approval is final.)

If, however, a protest is filed with the City Clerk by the owners of 20 percent of the affected property within a 30-day period after the filing of the amendment with the City Council, the amendment requires a three-quarters vote of the City Council.

Zoning amendments differ from zoning variances in several respects. An amendment is considered a legislative action and affects a larger geographical area than a variance. It is generally unconditional, has no time limit, and affects all property equally within the area of the change. Zoning amendments must be approved by the City Planning Commission with City Council oversight. Zoning variances, on the other hand, are granted by the Board of Standards and Appeals, as described below.

Variances (Board of Standards and Appeals)

Variances address the specific hardships or practical difficulties that may be associated with the development of a particular parcel of land. A variance is granted for a specific development and may be for a specified period of time. A new development on the same parcel would not automatically be entitled to the benefits granted a prior development. The benefits expire with the particular use or development for which they were granted.

The Board of Standards and Appeals may grant variances only when it has found that the peculiar shape, unusual topography or other unique physical characteristics of a lot would cause the owner practical difficulty or unnecessary hardship were the owner required to adhere to the strict letter of the Zoning Resolution. In such cases the Board may grant a variance from the use and bulk provisions of the zoning law to the extent necessary to permit reasonable use of the land.

Before granting either use or bulk variances, however, the Board must find that:

  • The practical difficulty or unnecessary hardship is caused by unique physical circumstances;
  • The practical difficulty or unnecessary hardship was not created by the present owner or his predecessors;
  • A variance is necessary to realize a reasonable return;
  • The essential character of the neighborhood will not be altered, use of adjacent property will not be substantially impaired and public welfare will not be detrimentally affected by issuance of a variance; and
  • The variance given is the minimum necessary to provide relief.

Special Permits

(a) Board of Standards and Appeals

The Board of Standards and Appeals may grant special permits for certain specified uses, and may modify certain zoning regulations.

The Board may permit a number of specified uses when it has made findings spelled out in the Zoning Resolution which ensure that the design, location or performance of the use will be compatible with the character of the zoning district.

The Board may modify certain regulations within limits set in the resolution. These include, among others:

  • Limited expansion of a building into a district where it would not otherwise be permitted;
  • Limited enlargement or conversion of a building to a bulk not otherwise permitted;
  • Modification of off-street parking requirements; or
  • Construction of buildings in excess of height limitations around major airports.

(b) City Planning Commission

The City Planning Commission must approve the location of certain uses which would generate heavy traffic or raise other planning issues within the surrounding area. For example, the City Planning Commission may permit.

  • Transfer of unused air rights from zoning lots containing landmark sites to adjacent properties;
  • Modification of bulk distribution requirements for commercial development extending into more than one block;
  • Floor area bonuses for certain public amenities.

The City Planning Commission must make certain that the particular facility will fit properly into the neighborhood. It may also impose appropriate safeguards to protect the neighborhood. A special permit can be granted by the Commission only after public notice and hearing.

Special permits may be given for a limited term of years, and may be extended for additional periods. An application for a special permit must include a site plan and such other information as may be required by the City Planning Commission. The Commission may grant the special permit, subject to appropriate conditions, only after referral to other appropriate city agencies for written comments and after a required public hearing. A special permit may be granted only if the Commission can make the general and specific findings set forth in the Zoning Resolution. Approvals by the Commission of special permits are subject to the City Council review in cases where the community board disapproves and the Borough President twice recommends disapproval, or where the City Council itself votes to consider the matter.

All special permits are subject to the City Environmental Quality Review procedure. Special permits within the jurisdiction of the City Planning Commission must also follow the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure under Section 197-c of the City Charter.

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