What is a Zoning Variance and When Do You Need One?

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When you want to construct a home or building on a plot of land that you own, it’s possible that the type of building you want to construct isn’t directly allowed within the zone that your land falls under. In this situation, you may be able to obtain a zoning variance, which would allow you to bypass the local zoning ordinance. As an example, let’s say that an owner of a construction company wants to create a building that would allow them to operate in that specific area. However, that area might only be zoned for certain retail stores. Without a zoning variance, the owner of the construction company would need to find somewhere else to operate out of.

There are two types of zoning variances that you can directly apply for, which include an area variance and a use variance. Zoning restrictions are very common and are put in place to ensure that property values remain high. A single-family residence is going to have a higher value when it’s situated beside another single-family residence. If a library is located in the lot beside a single-family residence, the residence would drop in value. While it’s difficult to obtain an area or use variance, there are situations that may allow your application to be granted.

This article offers a detailed guide to zoning variances and the many reasons why you might want to apply for one.

Zoning Variances and Permits

Zoning variances and permits are very similar with some key differences that you should be aware of. A zoning permit provides property owners with the ability to use their property for some kind of purpose that isn’t designated by the local zoning ordinance. Zoning permits are allowed in situations where the alternative use of the property doesn’t negatively affect the surrounding neighborhood. It’s important to understand that these permits are considered to be conditional, which means that they are allowed if the land owner can meet certain conditions that are set by the local zoning board.

As for zoning variances, these variances can be used to reduce any unnecessary hardship that you’re experiencing as a land owner despite the zoning ordinance having guidelines that are in opposition to your intended use of the land. With a variance in hand, it’s possible to change the lot size requirements or go against the minimum setback for property lines.

The two separate types of variances that you can obtain include area variances and use variances. An area variance allows the property owner to construct a building that goes against the physical requirements held within a zoning ordinance. For instance, you could obtain an area variance for the purpose of constructing a building that’s larger than the square-footage restrictions set by the zoning board.

As for a use variance, it allows you to use your property or land in a manner that’s typically restricted by zoning laws. Someone who obtains a use variance could theoretically run a business in a residential area. A use variance is more difficult to obtain than an area variance. There are many situations where you might require one of these variances, which include:

  • If you want to make a building on an otherwise vacant piece of land
  • If you are constructing or altering a building in a manner that would directly change its classification
  • If you want to change how a current building is being used
  • If you want the land to be used for a different purpose than the one stated in the zoning classification

The process of obtaining a zoning variance can be a complicated and time-consuming one, which is why it’s recommended that you obtain assistance. Since a zoning variance could potentially affect a community or neighborhood, these variances aren’t provided to just anyone. To account for these challenges, consider seeking help from a real estate lawyer who has experience in dealing with zoning variances. They can provide you with advice and guidance that may make it easier for you to obtain a zoning variance. A real estate lawyer can also assist you if ever a dispute arises wherein a lawsuit must be filed.

How to Obtain a Zoning Variance

If you want to get a zoning variance, you must fill out and send in an application with your local zoning board or a building inspector. Keep in mind that the Department of City Planning in Los Angeles takes care of all zoning matters, which means they are the ones you will want to contact to obtain an application for a zoning variance. The exact requirements that you must adhere to when filling out a zoning variance application depends on the city. Once you have sent in your application and the requisite filing fee, the zoning board will perform a comprehensive analysis of the situation to determine if your variance could be granted without significantly harming the surrounding community or neighborhood.

When you’re getting ready to apply for a zoning variance, it’s important that you understand what a lawful nonconforming use is, which is also referred to as a continuing existing use. If you already own a property in an area where a zoning ordinance was recently passed, it’s possible that the zone type was changed to the point where your property no longer adheres to the new zone use. In this scenario, your property could still be used in the same manner regardless of the passing of a new zoning ordinance. In fact, you wouldn’t need to go through the process of getting a zoning variance.

Keep in mind that a lawful nonconforming use doesn’t always apply even when it should. There’s a possibility that the effects of how your property is used would disrupt the surrounding community. If so, the benefits derived from the new ordinance could be deemed to be greater than the drawbacks for the owner of the land. It’s also important to understand that a lawful nonconforming use may no longer apply if ever you stop using the property for its intended purpose. Applying for an expansion to the nonconforming use almost never works. In this situation, your only other option would be to apply for a zoning variance, which would allow you to use your property or land for a purpose that isn’t normally allowed by the local zoning ordinance.

One notable step that you can take when attempting to get a zoning variance is to directly challenge the actual zoning ordinance. Certain states require that zoning ordinances adhere to a master plan, which is an area map that displays future uses and existing uses of land. If a master plan has been adopted by a state, all zoning will need to take the master plan into account. It’s possible to challenge a zoning ordinance in the belief that the ordinance doesn’t meet the requirements set forth by the master plan. While you may be unable to get the zoning ordinance changed altogether, it’s possible that challenging the ordinance would make it easier for you to get a zoning variance.

Tips for Getting a Zoning Variance

It’s very important that you attempt to get a zoning variance instead of breaking the law. If you decide to ignore the local zoning ordinance and proceed with construction on your property, it’s possible that you would be told to stop construction altogether if the city notices the work that you’re doing. The city could also tell you to get rid of all of the construction that has been completed to this point. Even though you own the land, the city has the right to determine how this land is used.

If you want to use the land you own for a purpose that isn’t designated by the local zoning ordinance, it’s recommended that you apply for a zoning variance. Once you get in touch with the zoning board and request an application, there are some tips and guidelines that you should follow to heighten your chances of having your application approved. These tips extend to:

  • Review the application form – The requirements for obtaining a zoning variance are usually found on the application, which is why you should review the application before filling it out
  • Consult with your contractor or architect – The contractor or architect you’ve hired may be able to provide an effective argument or plan your project in a manner that makes obtaining a zoning variance seem like a reasonable request
  • Obtain permission from your neighbors – The zoning board will talk with and listen to your neighbors to determine if they are fine with your project going forward, which is why you should talk with them yourself to gauge their interest
  • Attending meetings with the zoning board – Sitting in on a zoning board meeting will help you get acclimated to the language they use to describe zoning rules while also providing you with an opportunity to meet individuals who could approve or reject your application
  • Speak with a zoning or real estate lawyer in your area – If you’re finding it difficult to obtain a zoning variance, it may be wise to retain the services of a zoning lawyer who has experience in handling such cases

These guidelines should make it easier for you to obtain a zoning variance. With the zoning variance in hand, you can begin work on your construction project without further delay.

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