The Use Variance: Zoning Savior or Annihilator?

Zoning Practice — November 2020

By Josh Whitehead, AICP


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Variances provide limited relief from the strict application of zoning standards. While the variance is as old as zoning itself, commentators remain divided on its merits. For some, it is a safety valve providing relief from unnecessary or excessive governmental intervention in the marketplace; for others, it is a “cheat” for scofflaws seeking to avoid playing by the rules. This division is especially true for use variances, which allow owners to establish or maintain a land use that is otherwise prohibited by the zoning code, resulting in a de facto rezoning.

This edition of Zoning Practice reviews the history of the use variance, with a special focus on how states and local communities have refined their approaches in response to key court decisions. And it highlights approval criteria and procedures that Memphis and Shelby County, Tennessee, and other communities use to curb use variance abuses. 


Page Count
Date Published
Nov. 1, 2020
Adobe PDF
American Planning Association

About the Author

Josh Whitehead, AICP
Josh Whitehead, AICP, is a sixth-generation Memphian who was appointed as the head of the zoning office in Memphis and Shelby County in 2010. As such, he serves as the secretary of the communities’ planning commission and zoning board. He holds a master’s in community planning from the University of Cincinnati and a juris doctor from the University of Memphis, where he currently serves as adjunct professor. Whitehead has been published in law review journals on issues related to housing and blight but is most active on, a blog that features his take on Memphis’ design, history, and architecture.