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Understanding Variances: A Guide for Bergen County Residents

Understanding Variances: A Guide for Bergen County Residents

Understanding Variances: A Guide for Bergen County Residents

Navigating the world of local zoning and planning regulations can be a complex and confusing process. One crucial concept to understand in this realm is the variance – a legal exception to a zoning ordinance that allows property owners to use their land in a way that deviates from the local zoning regulations. 

In Bergen County, variances play a vital role in maintaining the aesthetic, safety, and functionality of our community. This blog post will provide an overview of variances, explain when you might need one, and offer insights into the application process. 

Whether you’re a property owner seeking a variance or a concerned community member interested in learning more, this guide is for you.

Table of Contents

What is a Variance?

A variance is a legal exception to a zoning ordinance granted by the local zoning board or planning authority. It allows property owners to use their land in a way that does not strictly conform to the established zoning regulations in their area. 

Variances are intended to provide flexibility for property owners when unique circumstances or hardships make it difficult to comply with these regulations while ensuring that the overall goals of the town’s zoning plan are maintained.

There are two primary types of variances: area variances and use variances.

Area Variances

Area variances are typically requested when a property owner seeks to construct or alter a building or structure in a way that does not adhere to the specific dimensional or physical requirements of the zoning regulations. 

Examples of area variances include requests to build a structure closer to the property line than the setback requirements allow, exceed the maximum building height, or construct an addition that surpasses the allowable floor area ratio.  

Every municipality in the county has their own zoning laws on setbacks, building height and lot coverage so it is important to go to your local building department to better understand the requirements in your town.

Use Variances

Use variances, on the other hand, pertain to the intended use of a property rather than its physical characteristics. Property owners may apply for a use variance when they want to utilize their land in a manner not permitted within their zoning district. 

For example, opening a commercial business in a residentially zoned area or converting a single family home into a multi family dwelling may require a use variance.

Both area and use variances are granted on a case-by-case basis, considering the unique circumstances of each application and the potential impact on the surrounding community.

When Do You Need a variance?

Variances are necessary when property owners face unique circumstances or hardships that make it difficult to adhere to the established zoning regulations in their area. Some common situations that may require a variance include:

Building a structure that doesn’t comply with setback requirements

For example, a property owner in Bergen County may want to build a garage closer to their property line than the local zoning ordinance allows. In this case, they would need to apply for an area variance to proceed with their construction plans.

Changing the use of a property to something not permitted in the zoning district

Suppose a property owner in Bergen County wants to convert a vacant residential property into a small retail store. In this case, the intended use of the property would not be permitted under the current residential zoning regulations, and the property owner would need to apply for a use variance.

Expanding a nonconforming use or structure

In some instances, properties or structures may have been legally built or established before the current zoning regulations were put into place. These are considered “nonconforming” uses or structures.

 If a property owner wishes to expand or modify a nonconforming use or structure, they may need to apply for a variance. For example, if a property owner in Bergen County has a house that was built with a smaller than-required front yard setback before the current zoning regulations were established, they would need a variance to construct an addition in the same alignment as the existing structure.

Other issues that come up frequently before zoning boards are property owners who want to put a deck, patio, or pool in their yard but they will exceed the maximum allowable lot coverage.  Or someone may want to put in a deck that will be too close to the property line.

These are just a few examples of situations where property owners in Bergen County might need a variance. It is essential to consult with the local zoning office or a land use attorney to determine whether your specific situation requires a variance and to understand the application process.

Criteria for Granting a Variance

When evaluating a variance request, the zoning board considers a set of specific criteria to ensure that the variance is warranted, and the decision aligns with the town’s overall planning goals. Here are some general criteria that the zoning board in Bergen County will likely take into account when deciding whether to grant a variance:

Unique circumstances or hardship affecting the property

The applicant must demonstrate that their property has unique conditions or characteristics that create a practical difficulty or unnecessary hardship in complying with the zoning regulations. 

For example, this may include an irregularly shaped lot, unusual topography, an undersized lot or other physical constraints that make it challenging to adhere to the zoning ordinance.

Ensuring that granting the variance won’t alter the essential character of the neighborhood

The zoning board will carefully consider the potential impact of the variance on the surrounding neighborhood. It is crucial for the applicant to demonstrate that granting the variance will not result in a significant change to the neighborhood’s character, negatively affect nearby property values, or otherwise harm the public interest.

Demonstrating that the variance request is the minimum relief needed

The applicant must show that the requested variance is the least deviation from the zoning regulations necessary to alleviate the hardship or practical difficulty. This criterion aims to ensure that the variance does not grant excessive relief or provide the property owner with special privileges not enjoyed by others in the same zoning district.

By considering these criteria, the zoning board aims to strike a balance between providing relief to property owners facing unique circumstances and preserving the overall goals of the town’s zoning plan. 

It is essential for applicants to clearly articulate their case and provide sufficient evidence to support their request for a variance.

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The Importance of Community Involvement

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One of the key components of the variance process is the public hearing, which serves as a platform for community members to voice their opinions and provide input on proposed variances. These hearings play a crucial role in ensuring that the zoning board’s decisions are well-informed and take into account the interests of the entire community.

The Role of Public Hearings in the Variance Process

During the public hearing, the applicant presents their case for the requested variance, and community members have the opportunity to express their support, concerns, or objections. 

The zoning board listens to these perspectives and considers the potential impact of the variance on the neighborhood and the broader community. 

Community input can significantly influence the zoning board’s decision, ensuring that all relevant factors are taken into account before granting or denying the variance.

Encouraging Community Participation

As a resident of Bergen County, it is essential to stay informed about proposed variances and participate in public hearings. Your involvement can help shape the future of your community and preserve the character of your neighborhood. 

By attending public hearings and voicing your opinions, you can ensure that your concerns are heard and contribute to a more balanced decision-making process.

In this guide, we have explored the concept of variances, a crucial aspect of town planning and zoning regulations in Bergen County, New Jersey. Variances, as legal exceptions to zoning ordinances, provide property owners with the flexibility to utilize their land in ways that deviate from established regulations while ensuring the overall goals of the town’s zoning plan are maintained.

We have discussed the two types of variances, area and use variances, and the common situations in which a property owner might need to apply for one. 

We have also delved into the criteria that the zoning board considers when evaluating a variance request, emphasizing the importance of unique circumstances, neighborhood impact, and the minimum relief necessary.

Finally, we have highlighted the significance of community involvement in the variance process, particularly through public hearings. 

By participating in these hearings and voicing their opinions, residents of Bergen County can help shape the future of their community and preserve the character of their neighborhoods.

Understanding variances and their role in the town’s planning and zoning process is essential for both property owners and community members alike. Stay informed, get involved, and play an active part in shaping the future of your town in New Jersey.

If you have questions about whether you need a variance it is best to consult a land use attorney or discuss your specific situation with your town’s zoning officer or building department.  They will be able to guide you through the process, the fees involved, and whether you have a case to use your property as you are looking to do.

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