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Exception to existing zoning law. Not a change to zoning laws, only an exemption for a party.


A variance is a request to be exempt from local zoning ordinances.

Property owners may submit a variance in order to develop a type of property that does not conform to local zoning ordinances. In many instances, the purpose of a variance is to improve a property and ultimately, to help increase economic opportunity for the property owner and the community.

For example, assume developer Shandra wants to build a 14 unit building, however the city’s zoning laws do not allow such a development. Shandra can apply for a variance possibly on the assumption that two of the 14 proposed units will be affordable housing, the city may approve the variance ion the basis that the development will create econimic opportunity and provide affordable housing.

Each city has a specific approach to variances. The vast majority of cities allow them in order to promote economic growth. However, some cities are very restrictive and do not allow any exceptions to zoning laws.

In order to obtain a variance, a property owner must submit a request to a city’s Planning Department. A Planning Department then holds a public hearing to receive feedback from the community. The Department uses a community’s input to understand how the acceptance of the proposed variance would affect other properties.

If the Planning Department approves a variance request, the property owner is allowed to build the property. However, he or she must have the specifications of the proposed changes approved by the city.

Area Variance

An area variance grants a certain exemption to a property owner who wishes to develop land according to his or her wishes, but current zoning laws prevent him or her from doing so. It is the most common type of variance.

An area variance applies to properties that have specific and odd shapes that do not meet the norm of most properties.

For example, say a city requires that all houses be “set back” a certain distance from the curb. However, a property owner has a home that is built on nonsymmetrical land that would make the cost of setting the house back very expensive. Therefore, an area variance may be granted to exempt them from the zoning ordinance.

The purpose of zoning is to promote or prevent certain structures from being built; however, zoning laws are not intended to place undue burdens on a property owner who wishes to develop. Area variances alleviate the hardship of zoning laws.

Use Variance

A use variance permits a property owner to develop a property that does not meet local zoning ordinances.

It differs from an area variance in that it allows a prohibited property to be developed, rather than provide an exemption for a property that already exists. Therefore, the granting of a use variance for a particular property may be considered spot zoning. A use variance is also similar to a conditional use permit.

The government will only approve a use variance if it does not affect public health or other property owners’ rights.

How Variances Can Cause Zoning Changes

When a variance is permitted, future land use in an immediate area has the ability to change the planning of the city. After one or a few major permits for development are issued using a variance, it is very possible, particularly with commercial real estate to have other land users to request a variance as well. If the requests for variance are issued, the real estate city office may decide to change existing zoning laws to meet the requests for a variance.