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Understanding Variance Requests in Zoning and Building Regulations

Jurisdictions and municipalities are responsible for creating ordinances that set zoning rules and place restrictions on how land is used. These rules are strict. If you develop a commercial building on land that has only been zoned for residential homes, you’ll likely be asked to tear it down. You may also receive substantial fines.

While zoning regulations are often set in stone, you may be able to get an exception to these guidelines by submitting a variance request. If you’re developing a building in Los Angeles, you must submit the request to the Los Angeles City Planning Department.

If this request is granted, you’ll be able to build a structure on your land even if the existing zoning ordinance restricts it. However, getting approval for a variance is difficult, which is why it’s crucial that you know how the process works. This guide delves into the subject of variance requests and how they apply to local zoning and building regulations.

Types of Variances

Zoning variances can be separated into two categories, which include use variances and area variances. Before you submit a request, you need to know which type of variance applies to your project.

Use Variance

A use variance is often used by real estate developers and investors. If the city approves the variance, it will give you the ability to use your property in a manner that’s currently restricted by zoning requirements. An example of a use variance is turning a single-family property into a multifamily home. You can also request this variance if you want to build a commercial property on residential land.

Area Variance

An area variance gives you the ability to make substantial physical changes to a property that wouldn’t normally be permitted based on existing zoning requirements. Homeowners often require an area variance. If you buy a home and want to install a fence in an area where it typically wouldn’t be allowed, you may need to apply for an area variance.

The Importance of Variances

Local city governments create zoning ordinances to ensure they have control over the kinds of activities that can take place on a piece of land. Zoning is used to avoid overcrowding and ample industrial pollution. It also protects the environment. While zoning and building regulations are strict, variances are designed to provide homeowners and landowners with the option to make slight alterations to these guidelines.

Flexibility in Zoning Laws

Variances provide considerable flexibility within rigid zoning laws. These laws require that a property meets the classification for the zone. The variance provides a single exception to these laws. While you’re free to submit a variance request to your local government, there’s no guarantee that it will be approved. The approval process can also take a long time.

For property owners and developers, variances are essential. Whether you’re looking to request an area variance or use variance, this is the only way you can change how your land is used and proceed with your intended project.

Encouragement of Development

Variances also play a major role in facilitating development projects. If you own a piece of land but are currently unable to complete a development project because of zoning restrictions, you might be tasked with applying for a variance. Cities tend to approve a small number of variances because they want to strike the right balance between development and regulation. Variance requests are often made for the following reasons:

  • When building a home closer to the property lines than is allowed by the zoning ordinance, you must make a request. If the property consists of a large tree that can’t be cut down or a steep slope, you may need to build around these issues.
  • If you’re looking to convert a historic building into a residence, request a variance.
  • Modifying a single-family home into a duplex will likely require a variance.
  • If you want to build on vacant property, a variance may be needed.

The Variance Request Process

The process for requesting a variance is often lengthy and complex. Your chances of succeeding somewhat depend on your ability to prepare for the process.

Initial Steps

First, you must identify the reason why you want the variance. They can be granted for reasons like preserving a historic building or accommodating a disability. You should be able to find information about variances on your local planning department’s website. Read the requirements closely to ensure you don’t make a mistake when you eventually fill out your application.

During this process, consult with the planning department or a permit expediter to help you understand local zoning ordinances and requirements. Information about building codes and zoning ordinances is typically available online. The planning department may give you guidance and tell you what documentation you’ll need to provide with your application.

Application Preparation

To prepare for the application process, gather the necessary documents and information. You need to provide the city with comprehensive details about your land and property. You must also have a good reason why you need the variance. If you intend to develop a commercial building on residential land, make sure you include building plans and a land survey with your application.

You’ll also need to prepare a compelling argument for the variance, which you can write in a letter. Make sure you’re clear about the changes you’d like to make to your property and why you need to receive a variance to perform these alterations. Your letter should be addressed directly to the local zoning board.


Submit your application to your nearby planning department. You can mail your request to the Los Angeles City Planning department or take it to them directly. Their offices are located at 201 N Figueroa St. in Los Angeles, CA. As touched upon previously, make sure your application includes plans, surveys, and supporting documentation.

While the application fees for a variance request vary from city to city, they typically range from $300-$1,000. You’ll also discover that the timeline for the variance approval process can vary considerably. In some cities or counties, you may need to wait two to three months for your application to be approved or denied. On the other hand, some cities have a faster process that may only require you to wait for around 20-30 days between submitting the application and having a hearing.

Criteria for Granting a Variance

The criteria for granting a variance are often strict. Cities don’t want to make too many exceptions to the general rules and regulations. However, you may be able to obtain a variance if you can prove a hardship.

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Hardship Requirement

Unnecessary hardship can occur if the zoning regulations are strictly applied. To prove an unnecessary hardship, you must demonstrate that the hardship results from features or conditions that are unique to the property. Let’s say that your land consists of a steep slope in one area. You might be able to prove hardship and obtain an area variance if you can show that you’re unable to adhere to the existing regulations when building a home.

The planning department will only accept this claim if you can show that the hardship didn’t result from specific actions that you took. A hardship will likely be valid even if you knew about the issue when you bought the property.

Impact on Neighborhood

The city cares about the impact of a variance on the local community. In fact, a hearing will likely be scheduled to provide residents with the opportunity to discuss your project. For example, if you want to receive a variance that allows you to build a commercial store on residential land, you may need to get the neighborhood and local community on your side. Make sure the variance doesn’t negatively alter the neighborhood’s character.

Compliance with Zoning Goals

The variance must also align with the spirit of the zoning plan. You likely won’t be able to obtain a variance that allows you to build a vast industrial plant right beside a residential neighborhood. Your variance shouldn’t stray too far from the existing zoning regulations. Maintaining the intent of these rules can help you get the community on your side.

Common Challenges and How to Overcome Them

The main issue with receiving a variance is that several challenges can arise during the approval process, including everything from neighbor objections to poor zoning board decisions.

Neighbor Objections

Neighboring property owners can object to your variance. However, you can appeal their objections, which will result in a public hearing. At this hearing, you can speak directly to the community members to address their concerns. They may be willing to drop their opposition if you state in your application that your variance won’t harm public interests.

Zoning Board Decisions

Zoning variances are designed to be the exception, which means that you may receive a zoning board decision that you aren’t happy about. Zoning restrictions are put in place to protect property values and maintain the character of the neighborhood.

If your variance request is denied, you’ll likely be able to appeal the ruling within 30 days. Ask the planning department what went wrong. It’s also a good idea to retool your argument to ensure it’s persuasive.

Tips for a Successful Variance Request

Follow these tips to increase your chances of a successful request.

Effective Communication

Your local planning department may be more likely to approve your request if you communicate with them throughout the entire process. The zoning board likely has a lot on their plate, which is why you must be clear and concise when speaking with them. If they have any questions or request additional documentation, respond immediately.

Professional Assistance

You may be more likely to receive a variance if you have help from professionals who understand local zoning regulations. Consider hiring lawyers and consultants who have experience helping clients make successful variance requests.

Community Engagement

It’s always a good idea to engage directly with the community to garner support. Even if you don’t think that you’ll be making major changes to the area with your variance, neighbors can object. If you get them involved early on, they might give you their support.


Variances are exceptions to zoning regulations and building requirements that developers, investors, and homeowners can apply for. Since variances aren’t handed out regularly, your request needs to be made correctly. Make sure you include the necessary documentation and take steps to avoid the challenges that often occur during the approval process.

If you want your project to go forward as intended, requesting a variance may be your only option. Seek professional guidance from consultants and lawyers to limit your mistakes and successfully navigate the variance request process.

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