Zoning laws and ordinances can be a frustrating topic for anyone working in the real estate field. Zoning is intended to give property owners consistency with nearby and similarly situated properties. Still, it can render some land unusable for owners who wish to use it for something not allowed under regulations.

That’s where zoning changes and variances come in — they give landowners a possibility to be granted an exception to the area’s zoning ordinances.

Do you know how your property is zoned? Millman National Land Services can help you find out!

What Is a Zoning Variance?

Zoning variances provide property owners with legal permission to use their land and build structures that would otherwise contradict the local zoning laws. Variances do not change the zoning of the property — it merely allows the landowner to use the land in ways that would not usually be permitted.

Variances are not typically granted unless the property owner can show that the existing regulations present a real difficulty in using the property.

Related: What Is the Purpose of Zoning?

Types of Zoning Variances

Use and area zoning variances are the two most common types. Let’s go into the differences between these variances.

Use Variances

Use variances grant the property owner permission to use the land for means that usually are restricted by its zoning regulations. Some examples of when you would need to obtain a use variance are:

  • Commercial activities in a residential district.
  • Industrial activities in a commercial region.
  • Multiple dwellings in a district zoned for single-family homes.

Because the use variance allows property owners to use the property in ways contrary to the neighborhood’s nature, there is a high threshold for obtaining this variance. The owner has to prove that the existing zoning conditions created a hardship for them.

Some conditions for obtaining a zoning variance and demonstrating hardship are:

  • The existing zoning rules prevent the landowner from realizing “reasonable return”.
  • Showing that the demand for variance will impact only the property in question and not the surrounding buildings or neighborhoods.
  • Demonstrating that the new variance will not alter the character of the district.
  • Proving that the variance is not necessary because of a self-created hardship.

Area Variances

Area variances allow the property owner to use the land in a way that would otherwise be restricted by the zoning regulations’ dimensions or physical requirements. Some examples of this are:

  • Adding an extension onto a home.
  • Putting up a fence along the property line.
  • Creating off-street parking spaces that connect to the property.

In most cases, obtaining an area variance is not as challenging as getting a use variance. For an area variance, you will need to prove that the variance won’t negatively impact the surrounding neighborhood. To be granted an area variance, you may have to show that:

  • The variance won’t make any undesirable changes in the community.
  • Alternative strategies were attempted when existing ordinances aren’t enough.
  • The requested variance won’t be too much of conformity within the neighborhood.
  • The variance won’t have a significant environmental impact — things like noise, drainage, and traffic congestion.
  • The need for a variance is not a result of the owner’s self-created difficulty.

Why Would You Want a Zoning Change?

Reasons to apply for a zoning change and variance

There are many reasons why a property owner might want to obtain a zoning variance. Usually, it’s because they see an opportunity with their land that’s impossible within the current zoning ordinances.

This opportunity could be anything from building an apartment complex or developing a residential subdivision to converting a home into an office space. No matter how big or small the changes are, make sure to always check your local zoning laws before making alterations to your property.

Related: Why Do You Need a Commercial Zoning Report?

How To Apply for a Zoning Change

If you need to apply for a zoning variance, you’ll have to consult your local jurisdiction for a zoning change. Every jurisdiction has its regulations and rules, but you will typically have to file an application and pay a fee.

Generally, the application will first get reviewed by your local zoning board, and they will notify adjacent and nearby property owners of the proposal. The zoning board may hold a hearing to decide if the variance should be allowed. If granted, the local governing municipality may have the final say in approving the variance.

If your zoning change request is denied, it may be possible to appeal the action with the local governing body or in the courts.

Non-Conforming Uses

Nonconforming uses can be thought of as a property being “grandfathered in” to an existing zoning code. The only way that this permit can get granted is if the property owner can show that the building or land was being used for a specific purpose before a zoning ordinance came into effect that created a hardship for the owner.

If the business on the property closed for any amount of time before the zoning ordinances came into effect, it might not be possible to obtain a nonconforming use permit.

Conditional Use Permits

Conditional use permits are very similar to variances, and they allow a property to operate in a way that is not permitted under zoning laws. These permits are typically granted before a political body at a public hearing. They will usually only pass if they conclude that the property’s new use is in the public’s interest.

Eminent Domain

Eminent domain gives the government the power to take private property and turn it into something for public use. Public use includes things like building government and public facilities, roads, buildings, and parks. Public use is also used to protect and preserve wetland and scenic areas, and historical landmarks.

Obtaining a Zoning Variance

A changing cityscape where zoning variances might be required

Zoning variances and changes can open up a wide range of possibilities for the way you use your property, but they can also negatively impact the surrounding area; this is why it can be challenging to obtain a variance.

Zoning variances can be a fantastic asset for real estate owners that want to use or develop their properties in a way that falls outside of the regular zoning designations.

Do you need to obtain a Zoning Compliance Report? Contact Millman National Land Services today!

Related: What You Need To Know About Zoning Codes