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How does a variance differ from a conditional use permit?

The Pennsylvania Municipalities Planning Code requires every municipality and county in Pennsylvania to adopt a comprehensive plan to guide real estate development and a zoning code to regulate the use of individual parcels of land. Interpreting a municipal zoning ordinance can be both confusing and frustrating. In this post, we will address a common question: what is the difference between a variance and a conditional use permit?

Both variances and conditional use permits are authorizations granted by the local zoning board that allow the land owner to depart from the literal provisions of the zoning ordinance, but the nature and degree of the departure are nevertheless closely regulated by the zoning board.

A variance can be granted to alleviate "unnecessary hardship" on the land owner caused by unique physical circumstances that preclude development of the property in strict accordance with the zoning code. A variance can affect or change minimum set-back requirements, building height and floor area limits, as well as similar dimensional issues. However, a variance cannot be used to alter the essential character of the zoning district in which the land is located.

On the other hand, a conditional use permit is granted to allow a use that is not permitted as a matter of course, but which can be approved if the land owner is able to meet the conditions imposed by the zoning board. The zoning ordinance defines conditional uses that are allowable in each zoning district and the conditions that may be imposed. The definition of a conditional use may differ from municipality to municipality.

The services of an attorney who is familiar with the land use and zoning procedures in the municipality where the land is located can mean the difference between obtaining the desired variance or conditional use permit or being denied altogether.

Source: Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development, "Pennsylvania Municipalities Planning Code," accessed Feb. 16, 2015

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