What is the Zoning Ordinance and what is a Variation?
In order for cities to develop in an orderly fashion, city governments will use future growth maps, zoning ordinances, and other planning tools to help stabilize property values, save money through more efficiently planned infrastructure, and ensure that public health, safety, comfort, and general welfare is both promoted and protected. Zoning is the tool by which local government can control urban form by specifying the building use, size, and placement.
The Zoning Ordinance is Chapter 37 of the City of Champaign Municipal Code. Its purpose is to implement the policies of the City of Champaign Comprehensive Plan as adopted by the City Council.
A variation is a grant of relief from the terms of the Zoning Ordinance. The purpose of a variation is to ensure that no property is unreasonably deprived of the development opportunities that are commonly enjoyed by other properties in the same locality and district. A variation from the requirements of the Zoning Ordinance may only be granted subject to the Zoning Board of Appeals finding that the criteria, as specified by Article XIV, Division IV of the Zoning Ordinance, have been satisfied. There must be a significant reason to approve the variation because if there is not, a precedent could be set that would invalidate the integrity of the Ordinance.
A variation is a special case when the Zoning Board of Appeals or the City Council votes to vary some portion of the Zoning Ordinance for a particular use of a particular lot because of unique difficulties caused by application of the Zoning Ordinance.
If the Zoning Administrator has rejected a permit application (or upon review of preliminary plans told you the plans will not be approved) because it does not comply with a specific section of the Zoning Ordinance, and you believe that it would be impractical to revise your plans to comply with the Ordinance, you may wish to apply for a variation.
As part of the City Code, the City Council has specified six classifications upon which the Board may grant approval without further review, and these are called “minor” variations. Any other variation is a “major” variation, and these variations are subject to review by the City Council. When you make your original application and the Planning Department Staff reviews it with you, they will tell you which type of variation you are requesting.
The six minor variations include:
• A reduction of up to 25% of the minimum required lot width or lot
• A reduction of up to 50% of the minimum required side or rear yard;
• A reduction of up to 25% of the minimum required front yard;
• A reduction of up to 25% of the total number of required off-street
• An alternative landscape that would reduce the amount of required
plant material or reduce the area of landscaping by 25%;
• A reduction of up to 100% of the required side yard for fire escapes or
ramps for handicap accessibility when the building was constructed
prior to January 1, 1992.
How do I Apply for a Zoning Ordinance Variation?
The Planning Department has an application form which you will need to complete. The application form includes eight “Findings of Fact” which comprise the bulk of your argument for your request. Staff is available to assist you when you are completing the findings. It is often helpful to schedule an appointment to review your application when it is formally submitted. Staff cannot supply you with legal advice, nor is it required, but you are welcome to bring your attorney, architect, builder, or anyone else you believe will be helpful to any meetings.
The application asks for a variety of information including name and address of the applicant; existing zoning classification; provision of the Zoning Ordinance the applicant is seeking to vary and a description of the variance being sought; a legal description of the subject property; the Findings of Fact; a drawing to illustrate the nature of the variation request; evidence that design options which comply with the Ordinance provisions are not feasible; a review fee; and other relevant characteristics about the subject property.
My Request is for a “Major” Variation
What Does This Mean to Me?
Because “major” variations are reviewed by the City Council, Planning Department Staff must prepare minutes of the public hearing before the Zoning Board of Appeals for City Council to review. The Planning Department will then prepare the entire variation request for City Council review and schedule it for the next available meeting. Because it requires time for Staff to prepare the minutes, and because the City Council meets only twice a month, this will add time to the approval process. Staff will schedule as quickly as possible to meet City Council’s agendas, but this realistically takes an extra month following Zoning Board of Appeals approval.
Major variations also require more stringent Findings of Fact including unusual hardship in meeting Ordinance requirements and unique circumstances that require relatively few if any other properties in the City to share the circumstances.
What Happens Next?
Planning Department Staff will schedule a public hearing at the next available meeting of the Zoning Board of Appeals. The Zoning Board of Appeals is regularly scheduled to meet on the third Thursday of each month, and state law requires that a legal notice of the public hearing be published in the newspaper 15 days before any hearing. Staff will be responsible for writing the legal notice but you will be billed directly by the News-Gazette for advertisement of the public hearing. Staff will also send a notice by mail to all surrounding property owners within 250 feet of the subject property.
The review fee for a Zoning Variation is $65 and needs to be submitted at the time of application.
What Happens at the Public Hearing?
The public hearing before the Zoning Board of Appeals is a quasi-judicial hearing. It is not a trial, but there are some similarities. The Board is a little less formal. Staff will outline the Zoning Board of Appeals procedures so you will know what to expect and can properly prepare for the meeting.
The Chair of the Board will call the meeting to order and proceed with roll call and minutes from the past meeting. The next item on a regular meeting agenda is the public hearings, which is where the Board will hear the requests for variation in order. You should receive an agenda in the mail before your meeting which will let you know when your case will be called.
When the Chair calls your case, all persons wishing to testify for your case will need to be sworn in. In order to save time, all persons wishing to testify for a case will be sworn in at once. In some instances, the Chairman will swear in all the people testifying for all the cases at once. The swearing in has the same legal effect as it would in a regular trial and persons making false statements under oath are subject to prosecution for perjury.
After the Chair has called the case, City Staff will be asked to summarize the technical aspects of the variation request, i.e. the applicable section and paragraph of the Ordinance and the exact variation requested from this standard. City Staff will then make its recommendation as part of their presentation.
The Chair will then ask you if you have additional comments. This is your opportunity to present facts pertinent to the case that were not previously made by Staff. It is not necessary for you to comment at this time, but if you so choose, please keep any statements to a maximum of 5 minutes. This is also the proper time for any professional you may have to make their presentation.
The Chair will then ask, in order, for all other persons in favor of the variation, and then they opposed, to make their presentation to the Board.
The Board asks that in order to save time, the initial presentations of both the applicant and the City be limited to 15 minutes, and that other interested persons limit their presentations to 3 minutes.
Following initial presentation, the Board, City Staff, and applicant may ask questions about the initial presentation or the proposed variation. As this is not a regular trial, this is not a cross examination, and the Board operates on parliamentary procedure. What this means is that questions are directed through the Board, rather than directly between applicant and Staff.
During the hearing, the Board will sometimes “suspend the rules”. This means that the Board members will discuss the proposed variation among themselves informally, and temporarily would like to limit input from Staff and the applicant. Their conversations, while under “suspension” are still a part of the official recorded record.
The Board will then “reinstate the rules” and formally vote on the granting of the variation.
Sometimes the course of the public hearing will lead the Board to conclude that more information is needed before they can decide to grant a variation. When this happens, they will ask you if you would like to request a continuance to another meeting in order for you to obtain the added information for the Board to consider. When a meeting is continued, the new meeting time and date will be decided and announced at the current meeting.
If the Board denies the grant of either a minor or major variation, the decision of the Board is final.
If a minor variation is granted, the decision of the Zoning Board of Appeals is final. If a major variation is granted, it must proceed to the City Council for final approval.