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Navigating the Process of Zoning Variances

When it comes to land use and development, zoning regulations play a crucial role in determining how properties can be used and what can be built on them. However, there are instances where property owners may seek to deviate from these regulations to accommodate their specific needs or desires. This is where zoning variances come into play. Navigating the process of zoning variances can be complex and challenging, requiring a thorough understanding of the regulations, procedures, and potential obstacles involved. In this article, we will explore the ins and outs of zoning variances, providing valuable insights and guidance for property owners, developers, and anyone interested in understanding this intricate process.

The Basics of Zoning Variances

Before delving into the process of obtaining a zoning variance, it is essential to understand what a variance is and how it differs from other land use approvals. A zoning variance is a legal mechanism that allows property owners to deviate from certain zoning regulations or requirements. It grants them permission to use their property in a way that would otherwise be prohibited by the zoning code.

Unlike other land use approvals, such as rezoning or special use permits, which involve changing the zoning designation or obtaining permission for a specific use, a variance is typically sought when a property owner wants to use their property in a manner that is not allowed under the existing zoning regulations. This could include building a structure that exceeds height restrictions, reducing setback requirements, or increasing the density of a development.

It is important to note that zoning variances are generally considered exceptions to the zoning code and are granted on a case-by-case basis. They are not intended to be used as a means to bypass or circumvent the regulations but rather as a way to address unique circumstances or hardships that would make strict compliance with the code impractical or unreasonable.

Types of Zoning Variances

There are two main types of zoning variances: use variances and area variances. Understanding the difference between these two types is crucial when navigating the process of obtaining a variance.

Use Variances

A use variance allows a property owner to use their property for a purpose that is not permitted under the existing zoning regulations. This could include using a residential property for commercial purposes or establishing a non-conforming use in an area where it is otherwise prohibited.

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Obtaining a use variance is generally more challenging than obtaining an area variance. In most jurisdictions, property owners must demonstrate that strict compliance with the zoning code would result in an undue hardship or practical difficulty. This typically involves proving that the property cannot be put to a reasonable use under the existing regulations and that the requested use variance is the only viable option.

Area Variances

An area variance, on the other hand, allows a property owner to deviate from certain dimensional or physical requirements of the zoning code. This could include setbacks, height restrictions, lot coverage, or other similar regulations.

Unlike use variances, area variances are generally easier to obtain. Property owners must demonstrate that strict compliance with the zoning code would cause an unnecessary hardship and that the requested variance would not create any adverse impacts on the surrounding properties or the overall character of the neighborhood.

The Process of Obtaining a Zoning Variance

Obtaining a zoning variance typically involves a multi-step process that varies depending on the jurisdiction. While the specific requirements and procedures may differ, the following steps provide a general overview of what property owners can expect when seeking a variance:

1. Research and Preparation

The first step in navigating the process of obtaining a zoning variance is to thoroughly research the zoning regulations and requirements applicable to the property. This includes reviewing the zoning code, understanding the specific provisions that apply to the desired use or development, and identifying any potential obstacles or challenges.

Property owners should also gather all the necessary documentation and information to support their variance request. This may include architectural plans, surveys, environmental impact studies, traffic studies, and any other relevant data or reports.

2. Pre-Application Meeting

Many jurisdictions require property owners to attend a pre-application meeting with the zoning or planning department before formally submitting a variance application. This meeting provides an opportunity to discuss the proposed project, address any concerns or questions, and obtain guidance on the application process.

During the pre-application meeting, property owners should be prepared to present their plans, explain the reasons for seeking a variance, and provide any supporting documentation. It is also advisable to inquire about any additional requirements or procedures specific to the jurisdiction.

3. Variance Application

Once the necessary research and preparation have been completed, property owners can proceed with submitting a variance application. This typically involves completing a formal application form provided by the zoning or planning department and paying the required fees.

The application form will typically require property owners to provide detailed information about the property, the proposed project, and the specific zoning regulations from which they are seeking relief. It may also require the submission of supporting documents, such as site plans, elevations, and any studies or reports that demonstrate the need for the variance.

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4. Public Hearing

After the variance application has been submitted, most jurisdictions require a public hearing to be held. This allows interested parties, such as neighboring property owners or community members, to voice their opinions or concerns regarding the proposed variance.

Property owners should be prepared to present their case at the public hearing, explaining the reasons for seeking the variance and addressing any potential impacts or objections raised by the public. It is important to approach the hearing with a well-prepared and persuasive argument, backed by solid evidence and expert testimony if necessary.

5. Decision and Appeals

Following the public hearing, the zoning or planning board will review the variance application, consider the public input, and make a decision. The decision may be made immediately after the hearing or at a later date, depending on the jurisdiction’s procedures.

If the variance is granted, property owners can proceed with their proposed project, subject to any conditions or restrictions imposed by the zoning board. If the variance is denied, property owners may have the option to appeal the decision to a higher authority, such as a zoning board of appeals or a local court.

Challenges and Considerations

Navigating the process of zoning variances can be complex and challenging, with several potential obstacles and considerations to keep in mind. Here are some of the key challenges that property owners may face:

1. Community Opposition

One of the most significant challenges in obtaining a zoning variance is community opposition. Neighboring property owners or community members may object to the proposed variance, citing concerns about increased traffic, noise, visual impacts, or changes to the character of the neighborhood.

To address community opposition, property owners should engage in open and transparent communication with the public, addressing their concerns and demonstrating how the proposed variance will not negatively impact the surrounding properties or the overall community.

Each jurisdiction has its own set of legal and procedural requirements for obtaining a zoning variance. Property owners must ensure that they comply with all the applicable regulations, deadlines, and submission requirements to avoid delays or potential rejections.

Engaging the services of an experienced land use attorney or a planning consultant can be beneficial in navigating the legal and procedural aspects of the variance process. These professionals can provide guidance, review the application materials, and represent the property owner’s interests during public hearings or appeals.

3. Demonstrating Hardship or Practical Difficulty

Obtaining a variance typically requires demonstrating that strict compliance with the zoning code would result in an undue hardship or practical difficulty. This can be a challenging task, as the burden of proof lies with the property owner.

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Property owners must provide compelling evidence and arguments to support their case, showing that the proposed variance is necessary to avoid an unreasonable restriction on the use of the property. This may involve presenting expert testimony, conducting studies or analyses, or providing documentation of unique circumstances that justify the variance.

Successful Examples of Zoning Variances

While obtaining a zoning variance can be a complex and challenging process, there have been numerous successful examples where property owners have navigated the process effectively. Here are a few notable examples:

1. The High Line, New York City

The High Line, an elevated park built on a former railway track in New York City, required multiple zoning variances to become a reality. The project involved converting an abandoned railway into a public park, which deviated from the permitted uses under the existing zoning regulations.

The Friends of the High Line, the non-profit organization behind the project, successfully obtained the necessary variances by demonstrating the unique nature of the project and its potential benefits to the community. The High Line has since become a popular tourist attraction and a catalyst for economic development in the surrounding area.

2. The Standard Hotel, Los Angeles

The Standard Hotel in downtown Los Angeles is another example of a successful zoning variance. The hotel, known for its distinctive design and rooftop pool, required several variances to exceed the height and density restrictions imposed by the zoning code.

The developers of the Standard Hotel worked closely with the city’s planning department and engaged in extensive community outreach to address concerns and gain support for the project. The variances were granted, allowing the hotel to be built and contributing to the revitalization of the downtown area.


Navigating the process of zoning variances can be a complex and challenging endeavor. Property owners must have a thorough understanding of the regulations, procedures, and potential obstacles involved. By conducting thorough research, engaging in open communication with the public, and presenting a well-prepared and persuasive case, property owners can increase their chances of obtaining a zoning variance.

While the process may be arduous, successful examples such as the High Line in New York City and the Standard Hotel in Los Angeles demonstrate that with careful planning, perseverance, and community engagement, property owners can achieve their desired outcomes and contribute to the development and revitalization of their communities.

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