Each Connecticut town has adopted their own individual set of zoning regulations, in compliance with state statutes. These zoning regulations generally divide the town into zoning districts, and then state what uses will be allowed in each district (residential, commercial, etc.), as well as the building characteristics allowed, such as provisions for building height, setbacks, lot coverage, etc. Each town also has a planning and zoning commission as well as a zoning board of appeals (although the specific name of each commission may vary in any particular town). The planning and zoning commission enacts the applicable regulations and considers applications for approval. But what if you want to use your property in a way that is not in compliance with the zoning regulations, such as a structure closer to a property line or building a larger or taller structure than is allowed? If your intended use or structure is not allowed by the zoning regulations, in some circumstances it may be possible to obtain a zoning variance.

As the name suggests, a variance is a way to vary the strict application of the zoning regulations as applied to a specific parcel of property. A request for a variance is considered by the zoning board of appeals. To obtain a variance, the applicant must demonstrate a “hardship” which would justify varying the strict or literal application of the regulations. Connecticut General Statutes Section 8-6 allows for the issuance of zoning variances. The statute provides that a local zoning board of appeals may vary the applicability of the zoning regulations when “a literal enforcement of such bylaws, ordinances or regulations would result in exceptional difficulty or unusual hardship so that substantial justice will be done and the public safety and welfare secured . . .” Each town’s local zoning regulations will also contain the criteria and procedure applicable to variance applications. Although the statute does not define “exceptional difficulty or unusual hardship,” there is a large body of cases that have interpreted their meaning. These cases have found that a variance must not be based solely on economic or financial criteria and also cannot be self-created. Variances are to be granted only when the applicant demonstrates that unusual or exceptional circumstances would produce an unusual hardship. Variances are frequently based on a unique characteristic of the parcel of land, such as shape of the parcel or the existence of wetlands, which would not otherwise allow the parcel to be effectively used.

If you have a situation with your property that you think requires a variance, you can speak with your town’s planning and zoning or land use office to find out about the application process. It is also suggested that you retain a knowledgeable zoning or land use attorney to guide you through the application process to maximize your chance of successfully obtaining a zoning variance.

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