Clear, accessible definitions for common urban planning terms.

What Is a Variance?

2 minute read

Variances allow for development projects to deviate from the zoning code on a case-by-case basis—if the project developer can prove a unique economic or physical hardship.

Variances allow for specific development projects to deviate from the standards set by zoning codes. In theory, variances are intended on a case-by-case basis for projects facing unique economic or physical hardships, and only if any changes allowed reflect the original intent of the zoning ordinance. In practice, variances are a source of political controversy over which projects and developments are granted variances, and why.

A variance is a change in the terms of the zoning regulations due to economic or physical hardship. There are two types of variances: the use variance and the area variance. A use variance allows a use not explicitly allowed under the zoning code—a commercial use in a residential zone, or a mixed-use development in a commercial zone, for instance. If a business owner wanted to operate an ice cream shop in an area zoned only for residential uses, a use variance would allow the business to operate. An area variance allows a property to avoid the physical site requirements set by the zoning code. For example, an area variance would allow a property owner to build a house with only a 20-foot setback from the property line instead of the required 25-foot setback.

In most jurisdictions, a board of zoning appeals, sometimes known as a board of zoning adjustment or zoning board of adjustment, considers the approval of variances. Variances are sometimes also considered by planning commissions, but are very rarely considered by a city council or county board. No matter which kind of quasi-judicial or judicial body has final say, variances must meet specific requirements for approval, which can include:

  • A unique physical or economic hardship
  • The variance will not reduce property values
  • The property owner did not cause the need for the variance
  • The variance keeps the spirit of the zoning ordinance

With the burden of proof for a variance, variances can cause controversy on either side of the issue. Developers will claim that zoning boards are too strict in their consideration of variances, for example, by failing to acknowledge the physical or economic hardships facing the project. Development opponents will accuse zoning boards of allowing variances to any developers with the financial or physical clout to push their project through the development approval process, regardless of the standards set by the zoning code.

Zoning Amendments

Variances can sometimes be confused with zoning amendments—the latter, however, change the zoning code, rather than allowing specific developments to deviate from the zoning code. Zoning amendments also come in one of two forms: zoning text amendments and zoning map amendments.

Together, variances and zoning amendments allow for varying degrees of flexibility in the zoning code. 


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