Variance Procedures

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Each zoning classification indicates specific development standards such as setbacks or building height. There are occasions, however, when the strict application of such standards may be inappropriate because of special characteristics of the property. The variance procedure was designed to permit minor adjustments to the zoning regulations when there are special or extraordinary circumstances applying to a parcel of land or a building that prevent the property from being used to the extent intended by the zoning regulations.

 

WHAT CIRCUMSTANCES PERMIT A VARIANCE?

Walnut Creek's Zoning Ordinance permits variances only when a finding can be made that "the strict application of (zoning regulations)...deprives such property of privileges enjoyed by other properties in the vicinity and within the same zoning classification. "Special circumstances may include factors such as size, shape, topography, location, creek or drainage features, heritage tree placement, and surroundings. The adjustments permitted by a variance are limited to such conditions as development standards. A change of use cannot be permitted by the variance procedure.

The City's Zoning Administrator (ZA), a member of the planning staff, is authorized to grant variances if findings can be made that warrant an exception to zoning standards. In approving a variance, the ZA may impose such conditions as deemed necessary to protect the best interests of the surrounding area or neighborhood. It is important to stress that a variance can only be granted if a finding of a specific hardship, as previously described, is made. A variance cannot be granted to simply make property development less costly or to expand the use of the property. The ZA may determine that, because of the probable controversial nature of any proposal, or because of significance to the City, the Planning Commission should hear and decide an application.

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HOW DO I GET A VARIANCE?

1. Project Consideration

Early in the consideration of a potential project, you should carefully review the Zoning Ordinance to see if all regulations are met. Alternatives should be thoroughly investigated to see if there is any way to accomplish the project objectives without requiring a variance.  

2. Review by Staff Development Review Team

You may submit a preliminary proposal to the Preliminary Review Team (PRT) prior to your formal application. This allows staff to review the request and provide useful information that may save time and expensive revisions later in the process. The City's PRT meets weekly and is intended to provide feedback on preliminary variance requests. PRT is a cursory review, not a comprehensive analysis of the project. You should submit a plan and a cover letter at the Planning counter at City Hall to be considered at a PRT meeting.

3. Filing of Application

Completed applications should be submitted to the Community and Economic Development Department (CED). A staff planner will review the materials to make sure all of the required information is provided. After the project application is submitted, the Planning Manager briefly reviews your application and assigns the project to a staff planner. The staff planner assigned to the project will be your primary contact and staff liaison throughout the process. The application is then routed to necessary outside agencies and City divisions that will provide input on the project.

Within 30 calendar days after the application is submitted, the staff planner assigned to the project will provide a Notice of Application Status to you indicating whether the application is complete for processing or whether additional information is required. You will also be required to make an initial deposit at the time of submittal for processing the application. The final charge will be based upon the actual cost of staff time required to process the application to final action. When complete, the variance application will be set for public hearing before the Zoning Administrator.    

4. Staff Review

The Zoning Administrator or other staff will study your application and research similar proposals in the area as well as make an investigation of the site. At least 10 days prior to the public hearing, property owners within 300 feet of the subject property will be notified by mail of the forthcoming hearing. A notice of the public hearing will also be posted in prominent locations around the site. The notices will give the time, date and place of the meeting, as well as identify the nature of the variance.

5. Zoning Administrator Evaluation

At the public hearing, the Zoning Administrator or other staff member, will explain the nature of the variance request and the applicable Municipal Code (zoning) provisions. You, or a representative you designate, must then present testimony giving reasons for the need of a variance. Neighbors or other interested parties are invited to testify (in person or in writing) in support for or against the request. These hearings normally operate on an informal basis and take place in the CED office.

After hearing all testimony, the ZA will take one of the following actions: (1) close the public hearing and either approve, conditionally approve or deny the variance; (2) continue the public hearing to a later date and place; (3) close the public hearing and postpone the decision to a later date, or (4) reach an agreement with you on a solution that would not require a variance. Written findings of the decision will be mailed to you and anyone who appeals the Zoning Administrator's decision.

WHO HAS THE FINAL SAY?

The Zoning Administrator's decision is final, unless an appeal is filed by any interested person. The appeal must be made within 10 days after notice of the Zoning Administrator's decision is mailed to the applicant. A public hearing will be held before the Planning Commission, and a decision will be made either affirming, modifying or reversing the decision of the ZA. The Planning Commission's decision may be appealed to the City Council.

HOW LONG WILL THE PROCESS TAKE?

The estimated time for processing a variance application will vary depending upon the complexity and magnitude of the change and staff workload. You will be notified within 30 days as to whether the project application is complete, or whether the application requires additional information. Once an application is accepted as complete, it will take approximately 3 - 4 weeks for processing and Zoning Administrator action. Most variances are categorically exempt from environmental review. If review is required, allow up to 10 - 15 weeks in the case of a Negative Declaration or Mitigated Negative Declaration, and up to 6 - 8 months in the case of an Environmental Impact Report. (See Environmental Review Procedures for further information.)

APPLICATION REQUIREMENTS

  • Complete and sign application forms.
  • Provide an initial deposit according the current fee and rate schedule. Make checks payable to the City of Walnut Creek.
  • Sign and submit a Statement of Understanding acknowledging the City's billing structure.
  • Provide a cover letter to the Zoning Administrator justifying the variance request.
  • Submit the data required for applications sent to the Design Review Commission (see Design Review Guidelines).
  • Provide site photographs showing topography, vegetation and landscaping, existing and adjacent structures.
  • Provide site plans and diagrams no larger than 24" x 36". Plans must be clear, fully dimensioned and scaled as necessary, but data may be combined when feasible. Plans must show the following data:
  • Legend including scale (1" = _ ') and north arrow;
  • Vicinity map indicating nearby cross streets in relation to site (need not be to scale);
  • Exterior boundary lines of the property indicating easements, dimensions and lot size;
  • All adjacent streets or public rights-of-way, including bicycle, equestrian and hiking trails;
  • Location, elevations, size, height, dimensions, materials, colors, and proposed use of all buildings and structures (including walls, fences, signs, lighting and hooding devices) existing and those intended to remain on the site;
  • Distances between all structures and between all property lines or easements and structures;
  • Any nearby buildings which are relevant to this application;
  • All existing trees (as defined in Title 3, Chapter 8 Section 3-8.02, Municipal Code) on the site, giving type and location and any other significant plant material, with a notation as to those that are to be retained and those that are to be removed;
  • Any existing significant natural features such as rock outcroppings, highly protected trees, creeks, knolls, and ridgelines;
  • Location, number of spaces, and dimensions of off-street parking spaces, loading docks, and maneuvering areas, with internal circulation indicated;
  • Pedestrian, vehicular, and service points of ingress and egress, driveway widths, and distances between driveways;
  • Proposed landscaping, including quantity, location, varieties, and container size;
  • Proposed grading plan (for sites having over 5-foot grade differential), showing direction and path of drainage on, through and off the site; indicate any proposed drainage channels or facilities;
  • Required and existing street dedications and improvements, such as sidewalks, curbing and pavement. Indicate widths, radii of curves, street grades and whether streets are public or private; and,
  • Other such data as may be required to permit the Planning Commission to make the required findings for approval of the specific type of application and to permit an environmental review of the application.

TIPS FOR SUCCESS

A. Review Site History

Research the site history and obtain aerial photographs from the City. Information regarding past applications on any property which may provide valuable information is available either through the Planning Division or Building Division.

B. Comply with all Zoning Requirements

Review the Zoning Ordinance provisions that pertain to the site. Do not rely solely on oral information given at the counter. Ask for copies of the code provisions and clarification for those items you do not understand.    

C. Review the General Plan

Obtain copies of General Plan provisions that pertain to the site. Examine the Floor Area Ratio Map, the Height Map, the Setback Map and the Land Use Descriptions.

D. Use Quality Design Professionals

Use the highest quality design professionals, as this will be the single most important aspect of your project. Architects, engineers and consultants are trained in the development field. The quality of the plans and project presentation reflect on the quality of the application.    

E. Respect the Character of the Area

Give thoughtful consideration to the life of the project, the proposed use and its contributions to the community. Remember, a proposed development does not stop at the property lines.

F. Maintain Public Contact

Obtain a copy of the mailing list for your project and prepare your own correspondence. You may wish to meet with neighboring property owners to discuss your proposal prior to filing the application.