A special use permit is a US term, which allows a specific exception to the zoning regulations from a list of acceptable exceptions for a particular parcel of land in a district of a particular zoning character. The local zoning authority reviews and grants special use permits.
Land use is governed by a set of regulations generally known as ordinances or municipal codes, which are authorized by the state's zoning enabling law. Within an ordinance is a list of land use designations commonly known as zoning. Each different type of zone has its own set of allowed uses. These are known as by-right uses. Then there is an extra set of uses known as special uses. To build a use that is listed as a special use, a special use permit (or conditional use permit) must be obtained.
Special use permits are an extra step that a developer must go through to receive approval to build a project. Usually a public hearing must be held by a plan commission and a City Council or other legislative body. With the decision in the hands of political authorities, receiving a special use permit can fall prey to the land use politics and the decision-making process of political leaders.
An example of a special use permit may be found in a church applying for one to construct a church building in a residential neighborhood. Although the church building is not a residential building, the zoning law may allow for churches in the residential neighborhood if the local zoning authority may review the impact on the neighborhood. This process grants discretion to the local zoning authority to ensure that an acceptable land use does not disrupt the zoning scheme because of its particular location.
US Zoning Model Act
The Standard State Zoning Enabling Act allows special use permits based upon a finding of compatibility with surrounding areas and with developments already permitted under the general provisions of the ordinance.
If the local zoning authority grants a special use permit that exceeds the discretion allowed to it, then an incidence of spot zoning may arise. Such discretion then may be attacked as ultra vires and the special use permit overturned.