Houston famously does not have zoning laws, but most major cities do. Despite the lack of zoning laws, there is a complex system of codes, ordinances and rules in place.
Zoning rules and other real property codes foster organized growth in a community to ensure that someone does not build a warehouse in the middle of a bedroom community. Putting commercial properties together in specific areas can make building and maintaining the appropriate infrastructure more manageable.
Nevertheless, businesses, developers and construction companies may want to build a major new mixed-use project in a neighborhood or change an old warehouse into condominiums. The law allows owners to make improvements to a property that does not comply with local rules, but it may be necessary to apply for a variance or special exception.
When are variances or special exceptions allowed?
There are few guarantees, but the applicant can secure a variance or exception if an element of hardship is involved. Common examples include:
- The owner or developer has logistical or physical challenges with the land, such as an unusually shaped lot or geographic formations.
- The land was originally developed before current ordinances.
- The variance would not alter the fundamental character of the location.
- The property will not yield a reasonable return without the variance.
- The change is insignificant and clearly needed.
- The owner or developer faces unusual circumstances.
- The needs of the community shifted.
Applying for the variance or special exception
The process varies by municipality, but the process generally includes the following:
- Filing an application: The applicant should include a brief description of the change, a site plan, and a burden of proof statement that justifies the request. There is also a filing fee.
- Administrative review: The staff reviews the application.
- Public hearing notice: Notice of the filed application is sent to the applicant, owners of neighboring properties, and appropriate neighborhood associations. The applicant can also post a public notice in a local newspaper and should post signs on the property that can be easily read by those walking by.
- Public hearing: This includes testimony by the applicant and anyone else supporting or opposing the change.
- The decision: The Zoning Board or a similar body determines if the change meets their criteria.
An appeal may also be possible.
Do not leave anything to chance
As with nearly everything involving land use laws and government regulations, applicants often find it helpful to work with a land use attorney with experience in Houston and other major cities around the country. They can help with the application and guide the client through the entire process, whether they are locally based or from outside the area.