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What Is a Zoning Variance?

Purchasing real property can be an exciting, albeit somewhat intimidating, experience whether it is your first time or your tenth time, and whether you plan to buy residential or commercial property. Before you set out to look at property it is important to have a very firm idea of what your needs and desires are for the property so you can narrow down available properties. One costly mistake that buyers often make, particularly first time buyers, is failing to understand the importance of zoning restrictions when they purchase property. The way a property is zoned determines the acceptable uses for the property; however, it may be possible to obtain a zoning variance if the property you like is not currently zoned for your intended use. Getting a zoning variance approved requires the assistance of an experienced real estate attorney given the complex and often adversarial nature of the process; however, it helps to have a general idea of what is involved before you set out to look for property.

What Are Zoning Laws?

In general, zoning laws are enacted as a way to maintain a certain degree of control over the growth of a city or municipality. As a small town grows into a larger city and then the larger city grows into a metropolitan area, more and more construction occurs as people and businesses decide to settle in the area. Understandably, if you purchase a nice residential family home you don’t want an industrial manufacturing plant or an adult bookstore sprouting up next door to you. The way to prevent this is to create zoning designations that determine what uses are acceptable for a particular plot of land. Most zoning ordinances divide land into four basic districts – residential, commercial, industrial, and agricultural. Each zoning category may then be further subdivided to further clarify what type of usage is allowable within each zoning designation.

What Is a Zoning Variance?

A zoning variance is an exception to the existing zoning law. If you own property, or wish to purchase property, and the existing zoning does not allow you to use the property in the way in which you wish to use it, you have two basic options – try to get the zoning changed, or apply for a variance. Re-zoning, or changing the existing zoning, it typically much more complicated and harder to get approved than obtaining a variance because a variance is a one-time exception for a particular property whereas re-zoning permanently changes the existing zoning designation.

Obtaining a Zoning Variance in Pennsylvania

In the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Municipalities Planning Code (MPC) governs the zoning variances. According to the MPC, a zoning board may grant a zoning variance if all the follow are true:

  • That there are unique physical circumstances or conditions, including irregularity, narrowness, or shallowness of lot size or shape, or exceptional topographical or other physical conditions peculiar to the particular property and that the unnecessary hardship is due to such conditions and not the circumstances or conditions generally created by the provisions of the zoning ordinance in the neighborhood or district in which the property is located.
  • That because of such physical circumstances or conditions, there is no possibility that the property can be developed in strict conformity with the provisions of the zoning ordinance and that the authorization of a variance is therefore necessary to enable reasonable use of the property.
  • That such unnecessary hardship has not been created by the appellant.
  • That the variance, if authorized, will not alter the essential character of the neighborhood or district in which the property is located nor substantially or permanently impair the appropriate use or development of adjacent property, nor be detrimental to the public welfare.
  • That the variance, if authorized, will represent the minimum variance that will afford relief and will represent the least modification possible of the regulation in issue.

The procedure for obtaining a zoning variance entails filing a request with the appropriate zoning board, notifying all interested parties, and convincing the board that all the above criteria have been met. Given the complexity of the process, and the fact that zoning variances are not readily approved, it is in your best interest to consult with an experienced Pennsylvania real estate attorney if you foresee the need for a zoning variance.

Contact Us

If you have additional questions or concerns obtaining a zoning variance in the Conshohocken, Pennsylvania area, contact the real estate law attorneys at Curley & Rothman, LLC by calling 610-834-8819 today to schedule your free consultation.

Real EstateScott Rothman