Understanding The Distinction: Variance And Special Permit

Charlotte Miller

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In real estate and property development, terms like “variance” and “special permit” are frequently used. While both are crucial for property modifications, these concepts have distinct meanings and applications. This article looks into their differences and the processes involved in obtaining them.

Variance vs. Special Permit: The Differences

When property owners consider changing their premises, they often decide whether to require a special or variance permit. These terms relate to zoning laws and require filing an appeal with the local Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA).

The procedure varies slightly across municipalities, but typically, it involves holding public hearings where citizens can express their views. The BZA then decides to grant or deny the variance or special permit. If denied, the property owner must wait a year before appealing again unless substantial modifications addressing the reasons for rejection are made to the plan.


A variance comes into play when the proposed change contradicts the relevant zoning ordinance’s dimensional requirements or use provision. Obtaining a variance allows the property owner to deviate from the rules set out in the zoning ordinance.

For instance, Georgia, known for its array of old but cherished properties, often faces safety concerns due to outdated designs or aging structures. In such cases, a variance might be necessary to make modifications that don’t comply with existing zoning laws. Furthermore, factors like soil conditions or topography might call for a variance.

The granting of a variance is also contingent on proving that there will be no substantial detriment to the public good or significant undermining of the purpose of the by-law.

Special Permit

It is a type of approval that allows specific property uses, provided the owner meets certain conditions. It’s generally easier to obtain than a variance and often comes into play in situations like:

  • When specific distances for setbacks from the street, rear yard, side yard or maximum structure height in stories or feet are involved.
  • When the owner wants to make further alterations to a property that doesn’t conform to current zoning codes but was grandfathered before zoning code changes.

Importance of Doing Your Homework

Adherence to the rules before undertaking non-compliant work can lead to fines or additional expenses, even if a previous owner did the work. If the new building or renovation doesn’t meet zoning requirements, the work may need to be altered or removed. Therefore, it’s crucial to understand the zoning requirements before starting work or hiring someone to do it.

When to Consult an Attorney

If you have specific questions about your property, consider consulting with an attorney with experience handling zoning and land use issues. This is especially true in places like Georgia and surrounding communities where zoning and land use laws can be complex. An experienced attorney can better oversee the application and appeals processes for variances and special permits, thanks to their background and familiarity with local regulations.

In conclusion, understanding what a special permit is and when needed can save you time, money, and potential legal headaches. Always research, and don’t hesitate to consult with professionals when needed.