What is a Zoning Variance?

by | Nov 30, 2023 | General Architecture, NYC Zoning, Property Development

Zoning is a set of regulations that govern how to use or develop a given property. These codes restrict the use and bulk of a building. In some cases, complying with the zoning regulations may be challenging. That is why you can apply for a zoning variance.


What is a Zoning Variance?

A Zoning Variance is a special permission to use or develop a property in a manner that does not comply with or conform to the zoning regulations that apply to that specific location. The local regulatory board can grant a zoning variance for the use or bulk of a proposed development. 

Sometimes, it is necessary to obtain a zoning variance to develop or use a property. Many factors are involved in a variance application. Still, the most important thing to understand is that the local governing body will assess the variance on a case-by-case basis.

I am Jorge Fontan, an architect in New York and owner of NYC-based architecture firm Fontan Architecture. At our office, we work on various project types, including those that need a zoning variance.


Zoning Variances are a Discretionary Action

Zoning regulates what you can build on and how to use land in a given area. If you propose to develop a property according to all the applicable zoning regulations, we call that As-of-Right. An As-of-Right development does not require any variances because it is fully compliant. Sometimes, you may want or need to go beyond the zoning regulations, in which case you may apply for a zoning variance.

Zoning variances allow a property to be used or developed outside the applicable regulations. Typically, these variances are given for one or more specific codes.


Who Grants a Zoning Variance?

A local authority having jurisdiction over zoning variances will review the variance application. For example, in New York City (where I am), variances are under the purview of the Board of Standards and Appeals or BSA. There is a great deal of procedure and bureaucracy involved in these applications. When applying, we must identify what zoning regulations we intend to request a waiver on and to what extent.

The most important thing to know about a zoning variance is that it is a discretionary action, meaning they can deny the application. You must make a good case and prove why the property deserves a variance.


Zoning Variance Examples

I will give two examples of variances we obtained for our clients. The first was a Floor Area variance, and the second was a side yard variance.

Floor Area Variance

We have a client who owned a very small property where they wanted to build a four-story single-family residence. The land was relatively undersized compared to other lots in the area. The local Zoning Regulations limit the buildable floor area of the property with a regulation known as Floor Area Ratio or FAR. FAR is a formula that determines the maximum floor area that you can develop on a property. We have another post on Floor Area Ratio if you would like to learn more on the subject.

We proposed a house exceeding the floor area ratio for the given property. We presented a study of the area showing that this property was quite undersized and that building an As-of-Right residence would result in a home significantly smaller than the neighboring homes. The BSA agreed with our assessment and issued us a zoning floor area variance to build a larger house than would have been otherwise allowed.

Side Yard Variance

Another one of our clients had a very narrow property that was only twenty-one feet wide. He wanted to build a three-story, two-family home on the property. The applicable zoning regulations required an eight-foot side yard on one side. The side yard would result in a thirteen-foot wide house. We presented an application to build a twenty-one-foot wide house, which was granted a side yard variance.


Zoning Variances

A zoning variance does not mean you can build whatever you want but rather is a discretionary action about specific regulations. There can be limits on the extent of the variance, but obtaining these special permissions to develop and use land outside of the local requirements is possible.


Thank You for Reading Our Blog Post on Zoning Variances.

I hope this was helpful. Contact us at Fontan Architecture directly if you want to speak with an architect about a potential project.


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Jorge Fontan

Jorge Fontan

This post was written by Jorge Fontan AIA a Registered Architect and owner of New York City architecture firm Fontan Architecture. Jorge Fontan has earned 3 degrees in the study of architecture including two degrees from the City University of New York and a Masters Degree in Advanced Architectural Design from Columbia University. Jorge has a background in construction and has been practicing architecture for 20 years where he has designed renovations and new developments of various building types.