Lately there has been a lot of discussion in the community around the Board of Zoning Appeals, what it is, the process, and general questions around it. This post shares some of my experiences with the Board with the hope it will help.
As always these are my views and do not represent ‘official’ City views and while I make my best effort to ensure what I share is accurate you should consult the Building Department for current forms and processes or an attorney for legal advice.
- What is the Board of Zoning Appeals (often called “BzA”)
- Variance versus Administrative Appeal
- Criteria for a Variance
- Best Practices and Cautions
- Links to More Information and Documents
What is the Board of Zoning Appeals (often called “BzA”)
As described by the City – “The Springdale Board of Zoning Appeals hears requests for “variances” to the Springdale Zoning Code as well as hearing appeals from residents or businesses who believe that an unfair decision or interpretation from our Building Official or the Planning Commission related to the Zoning Code.”
The BzA is made up of 7 members: 2 members of City Council, 2 resident members appointed by City Council, 2 resident members appointed by the Mayor, and 1 member appointed by and from the Planning Commission.
The key takeaway here is BzA members are neighbors that live here in the City.
BzA tends to be a formal process so the first time people run into this it can be intimidating. I can tell you that for as long as I have been on BzA (~5 years now):
The board makes a real effort to make sure the formal processes that must be followed do not prevent anyone at the board from being heard and understand what is happening.
It is a tough job, people come to the board for help because they want to do something that they would not otherwise be allowed to do, or because they have been found to be in violation of the zoning code and are asking for an exception to the rules. Being neighbors makes the group the right people to weigh the request, but it can also put the members in tough spots because we often have to tell the applicants that they can’t do something they want to on their own property.
Variance versus Administrative Appeal
A Variance is basically approval for a specific property to not follow a specific portion of the zoning code. It is a permanent ‘hall pass’ and is not something that is done lightly and the Board has specific rules and laws they must follow when evaluating the requests. The variance is ‘attached’ to the property and lives with the property forever so it is not a trivial request.
An Administrative Appeal is asking the Board to overrule a citation / finding from the Building Department or Planning Commission – basically if you believe the Building Department or the Springdale Planning Commission erred in interpreting or applying the Zoning Code BzA can provide relief (which is just saying the Board can overrule the Building departments findings if they decide – again based on rules and laws – that the Administration make a mistake.)
Criteria for a Variance
Our Zoning code Section 153.206 (B) describes the review factors the BzA weighs when evaluating approval for a variance. No one factor has priority and not all factors apply to each case.
- Whether special conditions and circumstances exist which are peculiar to the land or structure involved and which are not applicable generally to other lands or structures in the same zoning district; examples of such special conditions or circumstances are: exceptional irregularity, narrowness, shallowness, or steepness of the lot, or adjacency to nonconforming and inharmonious uses, structures, or conditions.
- Whether the property in question will yield a reasonable return or whether there can be any beneficial use of the property without the variance.
- Whether the variance is substantial and is the minimum necessary to make possible the reasonable use of the land or structures.
- Whether the essential character of the neighborhood would be substantially altered or whether adjacent properties would suffer substantial detriment as a result of the variance.
- Whether the variance would adversely affect the delivery of governmental services such as water, sewer, and refuse pick-up
- Whether special conditions or circumstances exist as a result of actions of the owner
- Whether the property owner’s predicament can feasibly be obviated through some method other than a variance
- Whether the spirit and intent behind these code requirements would be observed and substantial justice done by granting a variance
- Whether the granting of the variance requested will confer on the owner any special privilege that is denied by this regulation to other lands, structures, or buildings in the same district
Best Practices and Cautions
- BzA meetings can seem overly formal, especially if you have not been around hearings and government meetings. Don’t let that intimidate you – if you aren’t sure about what is happening ahead of that meeting the Building Department can answer any questions. In the meetings, applications have public hearings and details presentations. There is a certain order to it but if you aren’t sure what is happening – ask!
- BzA is “quazi-judicial”, all appeals of its decisions are made to the Hamilton County Court of Common pleas.
- The “Special circumstances” the Board is required to consider tends to be a relatively big deal. It is very difficult to justify several of the criteria to allow a Variance if there there are no special circumstances for the property.
Common issues we deal with are due to changes in the building code and building practices over time.
For example when one residential area was built the homes were largely situated on the street front portion of the lot (larger backyards, etc.). Over time best practices for setback from the street increased (for safety as much as looks). So now what happens when a front porch needs to be expanded slightly to accommodate an ADA type wheel chair ramp. A ramp may require a 15 square foot landing and the current one is only 5 square feet. Expanding the porch a couple feet may be prohibited because now the entire front of the house is too close to the street because the setback rules changed since over the past 60 years since the house was built. The lot position and age of the house along with the minor nature of the change all help explain the special circumstances.
Or maybe in a different case the irregular lot shape or features such as hill drop off or creek flow may mean to add a wanted accessory structure it might need to be close to the property line than would otherwise be allowed.
In every case that I can think of that was approved there has been some discussion of the special circumstances that applied and was well described. This helps explain the action for future BzAs in addition to justifying the decision made in case the decision is appealed or if it is used later as a matter of precedent.
- It is always better to get ideas on what the issues and work out alternatives in advance of the meeting. Keep in mind the criteria for a Variance, the Board is required to consider if the property can be essentially used without the Variance.
- See if similar Variances have been addressed by the Board before and what was the outcome? If similar requests have been granted the barrier of “special privileges” and “essential character” considerations the Board is required to consider is easier to discuss. One easy way I personally use to prepare for BzA requests is to search all the City BzA minutes for similar cases.
Google is a great tool for this, for example if you wanted to see cases where there was discussion of converting garages to living space you could start with this search on google
site:springdale.org/ garage conversion
which would turn up a number of BzA meeting minutes with dates and discussion points when similar cases were addressed.
Or you could search by the section of the zoning code being reviewed like
which would give you top search results of BzA meetings where there were requests for Variances to permit chicken, bees, or rabbits.
- Talking with neighbors can be helpful – having their thoughts helps the Board assess the “essential neighborhood” consideration the Board must consider.
- The “spirit and intent” of the code can be interesting in cases where parts of the building code are out of sync with other laws, or if new things show up that were explicitly addressed or explained well in the code.
Hope some of this helps – and if you have any questions about BzA in Springdale feel free to reach out to me or any of your elected representatives.
What do you think? Let your elected officials know!
email and phone numbers of all your City Council members are online – https://www.springdale.org/member-profiles.aspx
City Administration as well –
Links to More Information and Documents
- Springdale Building Department City Site
- Springdale Board of Zoning Appeals City Site (includes agendas, related docs, past minutes)