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Mastering the Minor Variance Process: A Guide to Navigating Zoning Bylaws and Optimizing Property Potential

Diving into the realm of property development, one often encounters the term “minor variance,” a concept that might seem obscure to the uninitiated. At its core, a minor variance is a request made by property owners to deviate slightly from the strictures of municipal zoning bylaws.

This deviation isn’t about major changes or complete overhauls; rather, it’s about small adjustments that allow homeowners to achieve their property goals without undermining the integrity of local zoning regulations.
Navigating the intricacies of property development or modification, property owners might discover that their envisioned project slightly diverges from the strict guidelines set forth by local zoning bylaws. Whether it’s a desire to build a sunroom that encroaches marginally into the setback area, erect a fence that’s a few inches taller than regulations permit, or convert a garage into a living space that requires a relaxation of parking space norms, these scenarios are where the concept of a minor variance becomes invaluable.

Applying for a minor variance serves a crucial purpose: it provides a legal pathway to reconcile these small but significant discrepancies without the need to seek a comprehensive zoning bylaw amendment—a process that is often far more complex, time-consuming, and costly. It’s about finding a middle ground where property owners can realize their specific property enhancements while still adhering to the overall intent and framework of municipal planning principles.

Moreover, obtaining a minor variance can significantly increase the value and utility of a property by allowing owners to customize their spaces to better suit their needs and preferences. It demonstrates a commitment to following legal processes and ensures that any modifications are officially recognized, which can be pivotal during future property transactions. Essentially, applying for a minor variance is a strategic step for homeowners seeking to optimize their property’s potential within the bounds of regulatory compliance.

there’s a roadmap of preliminary steps that prospective applicants should navigate to ensure their request stands the best chance of approval. These initial maneuvers are not just bureaucratic checkboxes; they are strategic actions that lay the groundwork for a successful application process.

Research and Initial Consultation

The very first step is to dive deep into the local zoning bylaws and official plans that govern your property. Understanding these rules inside and out is crucial because it helps identify precisely which regulations your project doesn’t conform to and thus, which variance you need to apply for. However, deciphering these documents can be akin to navigating a labyrinth for the uninitiated. This is where reaching out to a Development Planner becomes invaluable.

Contacting the Development Planner responsible for your area can demystify the feasibility of your proposal. This professional can offer insights into whether your project aligns with broader planning objectives and advise on the likelihood of your variance being deemed ‘minor.’ It’s a step that can save a lot of time and resources by gauging the viability of your application from the get-go.

The Development planner will require the address and the objective from you to provide an accurate quote.

Documentation and Dialogue

Once you have a clearer understanding of the zoning constraints and the potential receptiveness to your proposed variance, gathering the necessary documentation is your next course of action. Sketches or plans of the proposed changes, detailing how they diverge from existing bylaws, are essential. We recommend working with a planner or consultant from the start, they can help you prepare these documents that clearly communicate your intentions and the specifics of the variance you’re seeking.

Parallel to assembling your documentation, initiating dialogue with neighbors and the community can be beneficial. Informal conversations about your plans can gauge community sentiment and possibly garner support, which can be advantageous when your application progresses to the public hearing stage. Understanding any potential concerns early on allows you to address them proactively in your application or adjust your plans to mitigate opposition. If you have a neighbor who just won’t agree with your proposal, it does not mean that your proposal will ultimately fail, it simply means you may need additional documents to support your case. 

Formal Inquiry and Zoning Clarification

For questions specific to the variance needed, reaching out to the zoning inquiry contact provided by your municipality offers clarity. This step can elucidate the finer points of required variances and any additional information that may bolster your application. Since the success of a minor variance application often hinges on the precision and clarity of the requested variances, this clarification process is crucial.

Preparing the Application

With insights from the Development Planner, clear documentation, and an understanding of community sentiments, preparing the application itself becomes a more straightforward task. The application must detail the variance sought in exact terms, backed by your preliminary sketches and explanations. It’s imperative to articulate the necessity of each variance clearly and concisely, ensuring that the application reflects a well-considered request that aligns with both your personal goals and the broader community’s standards.

Once you have all the preliminary work completed, you are ready for the real battle.

Step 1: Completing the Application

The application for a minor variance typically requires detailed information, including the owner’s details, a description of the property, a detailed account of the proposed variance, and the reasons why the variance is sought. Accuracy and thoroughness in filling out the application cannot be overstressed, as this document forms the basis of the committee’s understanding of your project.

Step 2: Submission and Fees

Once your application is complete, submit it to the relevant municipal authority along with the required fees. Fees vary by municipality and the nature of the application. This step officially kicks off the review process, and the clock starts ticking on the municipality’s timeline to process your request.

Step 3: Public Notification and Consultation

After submission, the municipality will schedule a public hearing and notify neighboring properties of your application. This notification process is crucial as it invites public input on your proposal, ensuring that community members have an opportunity to express their support or concerns. It’s also a chance for applicants to engage with their neighbors, potentially mitigating any opposition before the hearing.

Step 4: The Public Hearing

The public hearing is a pivotal moment in the application process. Here, the Committee of Adjustment or equivalent body will review your application, consider any public comments, and possibly ask questions directly related to your proposal. As an applicant, presenting your case clearly and responding to inquiries confidently can positively influence the committee’s decision.

Step 5: Committee Decision

Following the hearing, the committee will make a decision to approve, conditionally approve, or deny the variance request. This decision is based on whether the application meets the four tests of a minor variance under the Planning Act: the variance is minor, desirable for the appropriate development or use of the land, and maintains the general intent and purpose of the zoning bylaw and official plan.

Step X: Appeal Process

If the committee’s decision is not in your favor, or if there are objections from the community, there is typically an option to appeal the decision to a higher authority, such as the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal (LPAT) in Ontario. The appeal process allows for a re-evaluation of the application under a broader scope of review.

Navigating the application process for a minor variance requires attention to detail, patience, and a proactive approach to engaging with municipal authorities and the community. By understanding each step in detail, applicants can better prepare their submissions, anticipate potential challenges, and increase their chances of a favorable outcome.

Application Fees:

The city application is listed on most municipality websites. It’s usually around $4000-$5000 for the base fee. Depending on where the property is situated, there will be additional fees from the Conservation Authorities and other interested parties like Burlington Hydro. 

Professional planner charges vary depending on the amount of work that needs to be completed. Starting at $2500. The planner will hire sub-trades, including but not limited to surveyors, and engineers to help with your case. Each sub-trade will charge a few thousand dollars at a minimal.

Given these varied expenses, applicants should approach the minor variance process with a comprehensive financial plan. This plan should account for all possible fees and costs, providing a buffer for unforeseen expenses. Understanding these financial obligations upfront can help applicants navigate the process more smoothly, avoiding any unexpected financial hurdles.