Zoning is the process of designating what kind of property can be built in a specific area or neighborhood. Counties and municipalities enact zoning ordinances to dictate what sort of buildings should be put where, and to prevent inappropriate types of real estate from being built in certain areas — like a  manufacturing plant next to a school, or a shopping mall in a historic downtown district.

What happens if you need an exception to your area’s zoning rules? That’s where a zoning variance comes into play.

What is a zoning variance?

Normal zoning laws require that a property matches the classification for a certain area, aka zone. A zoning variance is an exception to those laws that’s granted on a case-by-case basis by a local government.

Examples of zoning variances

There are many situations that may require a zoning variance. These include:

  • Engaging in construction or some other alteration so that the building or property qualifies for a new zoning classification, like modifying a single-family home to be a duplex.
  • Intent to change the use of an existing property or building, like turning a house into an antiques store.
  • Intent to build a structure on vacant property.
  • Intent to change some land parcel to a different zoning classification, like from low-density residential to high-density residential, prior to selling it.

How do you get a zoning variance?

The process to apply for a zoning variance will depend on your county or municipality zoning office. Their procedures will vary, but you can expect to pay a fee for the process and fill out documentation explaining the need for the variance. You’ll also likely need to wait for a lengthy community comment period when members of the public can hold or attend meetings to argue against or for the variance.

The government authority may also require you to pay for a new survey to plot boundary lines, a traffic study, or an environmental impact study depending on the property.

How common are zoning variances?

Zoning variances are the exception, not the rule. Even if you follow your due diligence and submit the required documentation, you still may not be granted a zoning variance. Zoning restrictions are in place in most communities in order to protect the property values of homes. Zoning variances can threaten the interests of nearby properties.

Municipalities can give zoning variances to businesses or persons who present a valid reason for requiring the exemption. If a business owner can prove that the business will not reduce the value of the adjacent properties, then the zoning variance may be granted. Sometimes business owners must appear before city councils or other local governing bodies to present their cases.

Controversy over zoning variances

Zoning itself is a controversial subject. Proponents of zoning believe that it preserves property values, neighborhood character and quality of life. Opponents argue that it can be biased and inhibit progress or responses to crises, population shifts or other economic changes in a community.

For example, single-family zoning ordinances prevent multi-family housing from being built, which contributes to shortages in inventory in general and affordable residences in particular. Zoning plans that completely separate commercial districts from residential districts often increase car dependency, which can cause environmental concerns and strain infrastructure.

So often, any major request for a zoning variance renews these conflicts. If nothing else, it disrupts the established order, and vested interests in preserving that order.

For example, in 2021 California passed Senate Bill 9, which allows up to four units of housing to be built on land zoned for single-family homes — the state’s effort to deal with its lack of affordable housing construction. Fearing for the fair market value of homeowners’ residences, several individual cities, including Pasadena, quickly enacted ordinances that would make it difficult or cost-prohibitive to build multiple-unit dwellings.