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Help! I want to build on my property, but I am afraid I may violate Zoning laws

Posted by Andrea LeWinter, Attorney | Jan 14, 2019 | 0 Comments

Help! I want to build on my property, but I am afraid I may violate Zoning laws

County zoning regulations establish area (bulk) and use limitations for each zoning district.  This means for your house or business, there are already rules in place limiting how you can build on your property and what you can do and where.  Specifically, what are termed “bulk regulations” set minimum and/or maximum specifications for lot size, height of buildings, and the distance (setback) between property lines, while use regulations determine what purposes can be carried out on a property (residential use, business, manufacturing, etc).

To avoid getting in trouble, it is critical to know what rules constrict your building or use before you actually start construction or set up an enterprise.  Otherwise, you may be reported to the County and face substantial fines if your construction is not demolished or enterprise restricted.

But, if you review the rules and realize that your plans may violate them, there may be an option available to avoid running afoul of the County. For good cause, the County may grant a property owner an exception to zoning rules, called a “variance.” A variance is an official authorization to depart from zoning regulations.

The most common types of variances granted are to area “bulk” regulations.  These allow a property owner to build in a typically prohibited area of his/her property, to build structures of a larger size, or to lessen the distance between property lines.* Use variances are rare and typically not permitted in Howard County. They are more appropriate for Conditional Use or re-zoning petitions.

To receive a variance, one must petition the County Department of Planning and Zoning and participate in a hearing in which the Hearing Authority will evaluate the necessity of the variance and any potential detrimental impact.  Specifically, the petitioner must show first that there are unique physical conditions that create practical difficulties or unnecessary hardships if the petitioner is required to strictly comply with the zoning regulations; and, second, that the variance, if granted, will not alter the essential character of the neighborhood, impair adjacent properties, or harm the public welfare.

It is important to note that the petitioner cannot be responsible for creating or causing the hardship that makes the variance necessary, and that only the minimum variance necessary to overcome the difficulty or hardship is to be granted.

If you believe that construction on your property requires an area variance (or you may need to request one after-the-fact), a land use attorney can assist you in filing the appropriate petition and arguing your situation to the Hearing Authority, and may be able to advise you as to other zoning options.  A variance may be the best option to permit you to build structures in the size and place best suited to your property lot.

*Please note that Columbia New Town Zoning (Final Development Plans) are not eligible for variances.

About the Author

Andrea LeWinter, Attorney

Immediately after graduating from law school, Ms. LeWinter received a Furman Fellowship to work with the Southern Center for Human Rights. She then practiced law for almost five years with the Attorney General's Office in Washington State. She moved to Maryland in 2005 and opened her own law prac...

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