Frequently Asked Questions About Zoning Variances

Zoning ordinances help cities and towns manage property development within their borders. Zoning laws help make sure homeowners don’t become next-door neighbors with a restaurant, pawn shop, or other commercial or industrial enterprise.

But sometimes, property owners find that their properties are zoned in ways that make using the properties difficult. In these cases, owners can request an exception to the zoning ordinance. This is called a variance. Here are the most common questions I get from clients about zoning variances and whether or not their particular situation qualifies.

1. Why might I request a variance?

When you want to use your property in a way that your zoning ordinance forbids, it’s time to request a zoning variance. In Minnesota, variances are generally not issued for use. So, it’s unlikely that your city will let you raze that single-family home you bought in your neighborhood and build a shop or restaurant in its place.

However, you are able to request a variance for where and how you build on your property. Owners might request a variance to build a structure that is taller than the ordinance’s height limits allow. Or, a property owner might ask for a variance to build a structure outside of setback and lot line requirements.

2. Who hears my request for a variance?

By Minnesota law, a board of appeals is required to hear your request for a variance. In some small municipalities, the city council or planning commission serves as the board of appeals.

3. How does the board decide whether or not to grant a variance?

The board of appeals must base its decision on three factors. These factors determine whether or not you face “practical difficulties” as a result of the zoning ordinance. First, you must plan to use your property in a reasonable way that’s currently not allowed by the zoning ordinance, such as building too close to your next-door neighbors.

Second, your property must have unique physical aspects that make the variance necessary, such as slope or the presence of wetlands. Third, any changes the variance would produce must stay within the character of your neighborhood. This includes the scale of your structures and in some places, style.

4. Will there be a public hearing?

Minnesota state law doesn’t require a public hearing for zoning variances, but most real estate attorneys recommend it. A public hearing ensures your variance appeal is properly recorded, creating a record to look back on if the appeal does not go in your favor.

Understanding zoning variances and how they work in your city or town can be tricky. If you’re considering requesting a zoning variance, seek the advice of an experienced real estate attorney. Contact Jon Morphew and the Morphew Law Office, PLLC at 612-790-9189 today for a free consultation.

Brynne Turner