What Should You Know About Getting a Zoning Variance?

Written by Ashley Sutphin Posted On Tuesday, 28 March 2023 00:00

Zoning restrictions broadly are something cities use to maintain property values. If you’re a real estate investor or homeowner and you’re going to make changes to your property, it may require a variance.

What Are Zoning Laws?

A variance is used as a way to deviate from current zoning laws, and it can be used for any number of reasons.  

Zoning laws or zoning ordinances, beyond what’s mentioned above, are put in place by local governments to determine how property in a certain zone or area can be used. Along with maintaining property values, zoning laws can protect the structure and geographic elements of real estate that the government has jurisdiction over.

Some zones are just for single-family homes and residential homes to help them maintain value, while others are for commercial and multi-family property purposes. For example, an area can be zoned as residential, industrial, agricultural, or commercial.

The problem with zoning laws, while they might broadly benefit a community, is that they’re considered to have a negative impact on your private property rights.

A zoning ordinance can prevent you from using your land or property in certain ways, so a variance may be needed.  

What Does It Mean to Get a Variance?

If a property owner is granted a variance, it doesn’t mean zoning laws are changed. Instead, they’re asking for a special circumstance, as a property owner, where they’re granted permission to change their land or adjust it in a way they otherwise wouldn’t be able to.

If a property owner can show that zoning regulations are negatively impacting the function of their property, they might be able to get a variance.

Every municipality has its own set of rules for requesting and ultimately approving a variance.

If you’re the property owner, usually you’ll submit an application and pay a fee to the zoning board. The zoning board will go over the materials you submit, and they may let other property owners know the details of your request.

Depending on the situation and how much of an impact it might have on surrounding property owners, zoning boards may have a hearing with the city council to make the decision.

Variance Types

In real estate, there are different types of variances, with area and use variances being the most commonly used.

An area variance is used when a property owner wants to make physical property changes that would otherwise not align with zoning requirements.

Examples of an area variance will include putting up a fence where one wouldn’t be otherwise permitted, building a structure closer to the road or property than what’s usually permitted, and building a structure larger than what’s allowed in most cases.

Area variances for homeowners are common and usually approved.

You’d apply for a use variance if you want to use your property in a way otherwise restricted by zoning.

For example, if you hope to make a single-family home into a multi-family home, you’d apply for a use variance. The same would be true if you were opening a commercial business in an area zoned as residential.

These variances are harder to get, and developers and real estate investors typically use them.

Getting a Variance

If you have a more complex situation or are a developer or real estate investor, you’d probably work with a real estate attorney to apply for a variance.

Otherwise, you should check with your local government because municipalities have different requirements.

The first step to get a variance is typically filling out an application which you can find from your local zoning board. You might also write a letter clearly outlining why you’re applying for the variance. You want to be specific in this letter, and address the ordinance or zoning law you’re referencing, why you want the change, and how current requirements are causing unnecessary hardship.

You also want to include in this letter the reasons that if you’re granted the variance, it won’t harm public interests.

After submitting everything required and being approved, you receive a permit.

If you apply for a variance and it’s rejected, you can appeal, and again, the specifics of this process depend on your local zoning authority.

If you apply for a zoning variance, you want to read the application instructions and do everything asked for carefully. If you have a contractor, talk with them to make sure your project plan is realistic, and if relevant, try to have a conversation with your neighbors about your plans beforehand.

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