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Idaho Enterprise

Variance Rules in Action

During February’s City Council meeting, city attorney Brett Evanson explained the factors that are used to determine the viability of a variance petition in the city.  The immediate matter before the council was an application for a construction variance on a property which was slightly too small for the minimum square footage requirement in the city’s code.  However, it was determined that the reason the area was insufficient was due to an easement on the property placed there by the city to allow for access.  Without said variance, the property met the code requirements for construction.

Because variances are an integral part of the zoning process inside the city (and any county or municipal area of control), City Attorney Evanson reminded the council of the process by which a variance of this type should be adjudicated while under consideration.  Variances allow for deviations from the established building or zoning code, and are generally intended to serve the function of allowing for common-sense exceptions to the rules in place when the circumstance is considered unique enough that they are unlikely to be repeated.  If enough variances are pursued with regard to certain rules, often the result is to pass updated ordinance language to clarify the original intent, or pass a new superseding ordinance in place of the challenged one. 

In order for ordinances to have clear planning value and create a reliable range of expectations for the building process, variances are granted rarely, rather than as a matter of course.  With each variance request, Evanson explained that the following rubric should be applied to
the situation:

The first “step” that should be used in making determinations about property variances is to ascertain whether “special conditions or circumstances exist which are peculiar to the land, structure or building involved, and which are not relevant to other land, structures or buildings in the same area.  In the case of the property specifically in question during the hearing, the easement was unique to the property and therefor constituted a “special circumstance.”

The second is to determine whether the literal application of the ordinance would deprive the applicant the same rights and accommodations enjoyed by others in the community or district.  This was determined to be the case, since the owners were being prohibited from exercising their building rights due to the external imposition of footage limits.  

The third is that the special conditions or circumstances do not result from the actions of the applicant.  Again, this was determined to have been the result of a city easement, rather than any request on the part of the property owners.

The last one is that granting the variance will not give the applicant any rights or privileges that are denied by the statute to others in the same district.  As with the other items on the checklist, this was considered in the favor of the applicants for the variance.  Extending building permission to incorporate the square footage assigned to the easement should not create any larger precedent, nor allow the property owners to undertake any action on their property which is prohibited to their neighbors.

As development increases in the valley—slowly but surely, according to predictions of those in the planning and zoning business—variances will likely become even more relevant to the conducting of city business.  

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