What’s a “Variance”?!

Variance!

What does it mean, and what you need to know?

You may have heard of the term “Variance”, if planning to build a new home or considering a building additions. It generally is in reference to applying for an exception to the rules set by a building, planning or zoning departments of a local jurisdiction. These rules are typically set to protect the general public, the neighborhoods or propertie owners welfare and safety. In addition to national building codes, each state, county or city may have their own, sometime even more stringent rules. Variance; What does it mean, and what you need to know.

Let’s say for example, you want to build an addition to the back or the side of your home. Typically the local zoning rules require a minimum “setback”. That is simply put, the distance set between the new addition to your property line. This is done in order to avoid encroachment of buildings closer than what’s considered safe or acceptable to other people’s property.

There are times however, these rules and requirements may pose unintended consequences and unnecessary difficulties, making the project/owner suffer a great deal in order to comply. In such situations there may be a case for “Variance”. Which basically means applying for consideration from the local or state jurisdictions for an exemption from the rule. There is usually a process consisting of filing the formal application, to preparation of documents and presentation material, and to appear in front of the city council or similar ruling body.

Ultimately you have to make the case and prove that the rules would cause undue and unreasonable hardship. In most cases the owners will benefit from representation by an experienced architect in such situations. As your advocate, the architect should have the skills and tools necessary to get you through this process, as efficiently as possible.

During this process typically the neighbors within a certain radius of the property are notified and given a chance to express any objections or concerns over the proposed variance. They may even choose to be present at the hearing to make their objection in person. So it’s important to maintain a good relationship and communication with them. It’s also important to have a clear and friendly communication with the zoning staff in charge, getting them to understand and be supportive of your position presenting to the hearing council and to grant a variance.

It’s important to note that, like most things in life, there are no guarantees! And even if the variance is granted, that does not necessarily mean total or complete exemption from the rules. Many cases may end up with some form of compromise. Give and take if you will.

The other note of importance to consider is the time and cost factor. There is a fee for filing the application, cost of putting the material together and the architect’s time. It usually may take couple of months in most cases, and perhaps more. Overall timing may be more important than any other concerns, since the delay of a projects may have a bigger impact on the overall outcome. So it’s important to be realistic with your options, when considering a variance.

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1 Comment

  1. Jim /Reply

    A good clear explanation and I like the example. Planners and land administration departments aim for a “best fit for all” approach, but the system does provide an avenue to present unexpected situations. What we see in various jurisdictions in urban growth in emerging economies (here as well as abroad, by the way) is that if the variance procedures are too arcane or expensive, they are not filed and work goes ahead “under the table”.

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