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What is a Variance/Minor Exception?

The Zoning Ordinance regulates what kinds of uses can go where in a community.  It also regulates what happens on an individual piece of property.  Things like building height limits and parking space requirements are examples of these kinds of rules. 

A landowner may feel that one or more rules impose a unique hardship.  If so, one option is for the owner to request to be excused from complying with that rule.  This is called a Variance (because the owner is allowed to “vary” from the rules that usually apply). 

A Minor Exception is another form of a Variance that allows minor adjustments to the zoning standards, primarily for architectural purposes. The Zoning Ordinance identifies the type of Minor Exception allowed and the permitted maximum adjustment.

General Concept

Landowners tend to ask for a variance when the physical aspects of property pose unique challenges.  Examples include lot size, shape, terrain, location, or surroundings.  For example, lot with large heritage trees may need an exception to a setback requirement in order to be built on to preserve the trees.

The goal of granting a Variance or Minor Exceptions is to enable property to be used in a practical manner. Variances or Minor Exceptions are, in essence, permission to break rules that others must follow.  As a result, these are not granted easily.


Key Questions for a Variance

  • What special circumstances justify granting a variance?

  • How does enforcing of the rules deprive the property owner of privileges that others enjoy?
  • What kinds of conditions can be imposed on a variance to make sure that everyone is treated fairly?
Key Questions for a Minor Exception
  • Does a  practical alternative exists?

  • Will the purpose of the subject zone be compromised?

  • Will a detrimental impact result aesthetically?

  • Will the proposed construction project otherwise be in compliance with all applicable Zoning Ordinance standards and requirements?


When deciding whether to grant a Variance or a Minor Exception, decision-makers must make written findings explaining why a variance is or is not justified. These explanations must be backed up with facts that also become part of the written record of the decision.  Generally, financial hardship, community benefit, or the worthiness of the project is not a consideration in determining whether to approve a Variance or Minor Exception.

What if the problem is that a landowner wants to use property in a way that is not allowed in a zone?  An example is someone who wants to locate a business in a residential zone. The solution to that problem would be to seek approval of a Rezoning Application or a Use/Minor Use Permit Application not a Variance or Minor Exception.

Application Information

Please contact the Planning Services Division at (925) 973-2560 to speak with a planner about specific submittal requirements, Application fees, and review timelines for a Variance or a Minor Exception Application. The application form and submittal requirements are provided below: