Zoning Variance

Zoning Variance
Zoning Variance
Quick Summary of Zoning Variance

A zoning variance is a request made by a property owner to deviate from the rules and regulations set by the local government for land use in a specific area. It allows the property owner to use their land in a way that is not typically permitted by the zoning laws. For instance, if the zoning laws only allow for residential use, a property owner can request a zoning variance to use their property for commercial purposes. The local government decides whether to grant the zoning variance based on factors like the impact on the community and alignment with the goals of the zoning laws.

What is the dictionary definition of Zoning Variance?
Dictionary Definition of Zoning Variance

A zoning variance is a formal request made by a property owner to deviate from the existing zoning regulations for their property. This request enables landowners to use their property in a way typically not allowed by the zoning laws. For instance, a property owner may apply for a zoning variance if they wish to build a structure taller than the allowed height under the zoning laws. The property owner can build a taller structure if the variance is approved. Similarly, if a property owner wishes to utilise their property for commercial purposes in an area designated for residential use, they can request a zoning variance to allow for commercial use. Zoning variances are evaluated case-by-case and are subject to specific conditions and limitations. Generally, variances are granted if the property owner can demonstrate that the deviation will not adversely affect the surrounding properties or the community.

Full Definition Of Zoning Variance

A zoning variance is a mechanism within land use law that allows property owners to use their land in a manner that deviates from the strict requirements of local zoning regulations. This overview will explore the nature of zoning variances, the legal principles governing them, the processes involved in obtaining a variance, and the potential implications for property owners and communities. Given the focus on British English, the terminology and legal references will pertain primarily to the United Kingdom, with some comparative insights from other common law jurisdictions where relevant.

Nature and Purpose of Zoning Variances

Local authorities establish zoning laws, also called planning regulations, to regulate the development and use of land within their jurisdictions. These regulations aim to promote orderly growth, protect property values, ensure public safety, and maintain the character of neighbourhoods. However, the rigid application of zoning laws can sometimes lead to practical difficulties or unjust outcomes for property owners.

A zoning variance provides a legal remedy in such situations, offering flexibility in applying zoning laws. It allows property owners to use their land in a way that would otherwise be prohibited, provided that certain conditions are met. The main goal of a zoning variance is to maintain the overall goals of the zoning plan while easing the hardship that strict zoning regulations cause.

Legal Principles Governing Zoning Variances

Statutory Framework

The statutory framework for zoning and planning in the United Kingdom is primarily found in the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 and its subsequent amendments. Local planning authorities (LPAs) are responsible for enforcing these laws and have the authority to grant variances, commonly referred to as “planning permissions” or “planning consents,” in specific circumstances.

Types of Variances

There are generally two main types of zoning variances:

  1. Use Variance: This allows a property owner to use land for a purpose not permitted under the current zoning classification. For example, converting a residential property into a commercial one.
  2. Area Variance: This permits deviations from physical or dimensional requirements of the zoning regulations, such as building height, setback requirements, or lot coverage.

Criteria for Granting a Variance

The criteria for granting a zoning variance typically include the following:

  1. Undue Hardship: The applicant must demonstrate that strict compliance with the zoning regulations would result in undue hardship or practical difficulties. This hardship must be unique to the property in question and not self-inflicted.
  2. No Detriment to Public Interest: The variance should not negatively impact the public interest, including the neighbourhood’s character, public safety, or the environment.
  3. Minimum Necessary Adjustment: The variance should be the minimum necessary to alleviate the hardship.
  4. Consistency with Planning Objectives: The variance must not undermine the broader objectives of the zoning plan.

Case Law

Judicial decisions play a crucial role in shaping the application of zoning variances. Courts often interpret statutory provisions and establish precedents that guide local authorities. Key case law in the UK, such as Tesco Stores Ltd. v. Secretary of State for Environment (1995), provides valuable insights into how variances should be evaluated and granted.

Process of Obtaining a Zoning Variance


The process begins with the property owner submitting a variance application to the local planning authority. The application typically includes detailed information about the proposed use or development, the specific variance requested, and the reasons for seeking the variance. Supporting documents, such as site plans, architectural drawings, and impact assessments, are often required.

Public Notice and Hearing

Upon receiving the application, the local planning authority must provide public notice to inform nearby residents and other stakeholders about the proposed variance. This notice allows the public to participate in decision-making by submitting comments or objections.

A public hearing is usually held, where the applicant can present their case, and interested parties can express their views. The hearing allows the planning authority to consider the potential impacts of the variance on the community and weigh the arguments for and against granting the variance.


After considering all relevant information, the local planning authority will decide whether to approve or deny the variance. This decision is based on the criteria outlined earlier and any additional considerations specific to the local context.


The applicant may have the right to appeal the decision if the variance application is denied. An impartial body such as the Planning Inspectorate in England and Wales typically hears appeals. The appeals process allows for a thorough review of the initial decision and provides a mechanism for resolving disputes.

Implications of Zoning Variances

For Property Owners

Obtaining a zoning variance can have significant benefits for property owners. It can increase the value and utility of their property by allowing more flexible uses or developments. However, the process can be time-consuming and costly, with no guarantee of success. Property owners must consider the potential benefits and risks before pursuing a variance.

For Local Communities

Zoning variances can have both positive and negative impacts on local communities. On one hand, they can facilitate development projects that contribute to economic growth, provide housing, or enhance community amenities. On the other hand, if not carefully managed, variances can lead to overdevelopment, traffic congestion, and other adverse effects on the quality of life.

Local planning authorities must balance accommodating individual property rights with protecting the broader public interest. Engaging the community in decision-making is essential to achieving this balance and ensuring that variances are granted fairly and transparently.

Comparative Insights

United States

In the United States, zoning variances are similarly established, with local zoning boards, or boards of adjustment, responsible for granting variances. The legal principles governing variances are comparable, though the specific criteria and processes can vary significantly between states and municipalities. Key differences often lie in the level of judicial scrutiny and the emphasis on protecting property rights.


Canada’s approach to zoning variances also shares similarities with the UK, with local planning authorities and adjustment committees playing a central role. The criteria for granting variances often include considerations of undue hardship, conformity with the general intent of the zoning by-law, and the impact on neighbouring properties.


Zoning variances are an essential tool within the framework of land use planning. They provide flexibility to address unique circumstances and promote equitable outcomes. While they offer significant benefits to property owners, obtaining a variance is complex and requires careful consideration of legal principles, community interests, and planning objectives.

Local planning authorities are critical in administering the variance process, ensuring that decisions are made transparently and following established criteria. By engaging with the community and adhering to best practices, authorities can balance the needs of individual property owners with the broader goals of sustainable and orderly development.

Understanding the legal landscape of zoning variances is crucial for property owners, developers, planners, and community members. It allows for informed participation in the planning process and helps to ensure that land use decisions contribute to the overall well-being of communities.

Zoning Variance FAQ'S

A zoning variance is a legal permission granted by a local government that allows a property owner to deviate from the specific requirements of the zoning ordinance for their property.

You need to apply for a zoning variance when you want to use your property in a way that is not permitted by the current zoning regulations.

To apply for a zoning variance, you typically need to submit an application to the local zoning board or planning department, along with any required fees and supporting documents.

When reviewing a zoning variance application, factors such as the impact on neighboring properties, public health and safety, and the overall intent of the zoning ordinance are taken into consideration.

The chances of getting a zoning variance approved depend on various factors, including the specific circumstances of your property and the local zoning regulations. It is best to consult with a legal professional to assess your chances.

Yes, you can typically appeal a denial of a zoning variance. The specific process for appealing may vary depending on the local jurisdiction.

The zoning variance process can vary in duration depending on the complexity of the case and the local government’s workload. It can take anywhere from a few weeks to several months.

In most cases, zoning variances are specific to the property owner and cannot be transferred to a new owner. The new owner would need to apply for their own variance if they wish to deviate from the zoning regulations.

Yes, a zoning variance can be revoked if the property owner fails to comply with the conditions set forth in the variance or if it is determined that the variance was obtained through fraudulent means.

Yes, it is possible to apply for multiple zoning variances for the same property if there are different aspects of the property that do not comply with the zoning regulations. Each variance application would need to be evaluated separately.

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This site contains general legal information but does not constitute professional legal advice for your particular situation. Persuing this glossary does not create an attorney-client or legal adviser relationship. If you have specific questions, please consult a qualified attorney licensed in your jurisdiction.

This glossary post was last updated: 11th June 2024.

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