Avoiding Idiotic Variances

Zoning Practice — June 2012

By Lane Kendig


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The drafters of the first zoning ordinances felt it was legally essential to provide a variance procedure to deal with unique circumstances that render a lot unbuildable. Consequentely, all state enabling laws delegate the power to grant variances to a zoning board or board of appeals (comprised either of elected or appointed officials).

The initial intent of the variance was to grant relief to an existing lot that was rendered unbuildable. Unfortunately, the administration of variance requests in many communities can also be described as idiotic. It is not unusual for communities to grant 70 to 95 percent of all variance requests. When nearly every variance for a larger sign, enclosed porch, or reduced setback is granted, then it is foolish to force owners to go through the variance process.

This issue of Zoning Practice explains how communities can amend their codes and administrative procedures to minimize unnecessary or unjustified uses of the variance. It highlights specific strategies, such as annual reviews, limited use standards, discretionary use permits for nonconformities, and flexible zoning standards.


Page Count
Date Published
June 1, 2012
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American Planning Association

About the Author

Lane Kendig
Lane Kendig is the founder of Kendig Keast Collaborative a national planning firm. Prior to that he worked in Bucks County, PA and was county planning director in Lake County, IL. He has practiced planning for over 45 years across the United States working for large and small cities, counties, and developers. He is the author of “Performance Zoning” (APA 1980) and the Island Press books “Community Character” and “Planning with Community Character” 2010. He has authored three PAS reports for APA, as well as writing numerous articles. He is an expert in comprehensive planning, land use regulations, and environmental protection. Mr. Kendig has not only written plans and codes, but reviewed thousands of site plans and designed developments ranging from small residential to super regional shopping centers.