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Permitting and licensing in Boston

We’ve outlined some things to keep in mind during the permitting and licensing process.

It’s not always easy to know exactly what you need. Depending on your situation, the process may be different, and you may need different reviews from the City.

The information listed will help guide you through the process.

Location

Certificate of Occupancy

It’s important to find out the current occupancy of your building. Occupancy is the City's official record of how that property is being used. The property’s Certificate of Occupancy shows the legal use on record for the property.

Don’t have Certificate of Occupancy? The occupancy will be on the most recent long-form permit for the property. You can find this in the document room of Inspectional Services:

1010 Massachusetts Avenue, 5th floor
Boston, MA 02118
Office hours: Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. - 4 p.m.

Changing the occupancy

Are going to use the building for something other than its current legal occupancy? You may need to need to file a long-form permit to change the occupancy of the building. For more reasons on why you might need a long form, please review our construction information.

Zoning

Zoning is generally how the City has designated what is allowed in the general area. This may also be specific to a “zone” that the property falls within. You can learn all about the zoning relevant to your property using a tool called the Zoning Viewer. Through that tool, you might want to look out for a few things

Allowed Uses:

Uses are classified 3 ways:

A = Allowed
C = Conditional
F = Forbidden.

Specific kinds of businesses will fall under one of these classifications.

If you are trying to use a space for a use that is not “allowed” in the code, you can file for a permit. Then, after Inspectional Services denies your permit, you can file an appeal with the City. The Zoning Board of Appeal will hear your case.

Overlays:

Some areas require input from other City agencies. This is based on the specific geographical area of your project. For example, if your business has a Design Overlay, your plans will require additional review by the Boston Planning and Development Agency.

Other common zoning regulations:

There are other considerations that could impact your plan making it through a zoning review without needing an appeal. These include setbacks and the floor area ratio of the property.

Zoning viewer is a great way to learn what zoning regulations might be relevant to your project. But, the plans examiners at Inspectional Services will make the final determination on how your plans fit within the rules of the zoning code.

Construction

One of the most common reasons is to get a permit or license from the City is for a construction project.

Depending on scope, your project will always need review by Inspectional Services. You’ll also likely need reviews by the Fire Department and other departments at the City.

Construction process

Operation

Depending on how you plan to use the space, you may have to get some more licenses or permits. The list below isn’t exhaustive, but it should give you a snapshot of what you might need.

FOOD ESTABLISHMENTS
  • Servsafe certification
  • Commercial grade kitchen
  • Handwashing sinks
  • Floor plan and layout of entire space, both for customer and employee areas. A professional drawing or stamp is not required.
  • Menu list with prices
  • Proof of legal occupancy from the Inspectonal Services Building Division.
ALCOHOL
  • Beer and Wine License
  • Full Liquor License. You may also need a Main Street license
PHYSICAL SPACE
  • Each unit in a space must have two (2) clearly designated means of egress or exit.
  • ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliant. This includes but is not limited to the entrance, seating, and restrooms.
  • If you have any outdoor seating
FIRE CONSIDERATIONS

You must always have two (2) clearly designated means of egress or exit in each unit of a building.

Residential

  • For 1-2 units, you must have smoke and carbon monoxide detectors.
  • For 3 or more units, you need a sprinkler system.

Commercial

  • Commercial buildings need a sprinkler system and exit signs hard-wired with backup batteries.
  • If a building’s capacity is over 50 and features music (live or a DJ), you need a shunt on your fire alarm. This automatically shuts off music and gives the audience instructions on how to exit the building.
  • If you sell cooked food, you need a commercial grade kitchen with a fire suppression system.
OCCUPANCY LEVELS

Residential

  • Single family or 1 unit properties
  • 2-3 family structures
  • 4 or more units

Commercial

  • Less than 50
  • 50 or more. Building requires a place of assembly permit. This triggers more fire protection measures and life safety inspection.
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