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The state building code and local zoning code and by-laws require permits to ensure that the code is being followed in each area. If you have a project that is not allowed under the existing by-laws or code, you can take your case to the Zoning Board of Appeals, which can grant relief in special circumstances.
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Many projects, even very small ones, require a building permit. All projects are evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Call the building department with questions about your specific project.
Orleans zoning by-laws regulate the allowed uses in each of the town's zones and require a permit to indicate that your project will be in compliance with the by-laws. Likewise, Massachusetts State Building Code requires a permit to indicate that your building project has been designed to comply with safety standards outlined in the state building code.