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Zoning & Development Review

When is a Variance Needed?

The County Zoning Ordinance contains specific site standards for:

  • building setbacks
  • structure heights
  • percentage of allowable lot coverage
  • percentage of allowable floor are

These rules depend on how the property is zoned.

New Construction

All new construction must meet current site standards. Sometimes people find it difficult or impossible to meet these standards because of an unusual situation. This may be the shape or size of the lot, uneven topography, or the location of a tree or stream.

If special circumstances exist on your property, if the construction will not be harmful to anyone else's property, and if it will not give you an advantage over other owners in the neighborhood, you may be able to obtain a variance.

Conversion of Existing Space

You may wish to convert a roofed porch, carport, or garage to living space. If that structure does not meet today's site standard, consult the Zoning Counter staff to see if a variance is needed.

When a Variance Can't Be Considered

Certain requests to vary from site or use standards are not processed as Variances. For example; excess fence height must be applied for as a level 3 or 5 use approval. The Zoning Counter can advise you of what to apply for.

Uses that are not allowed in the various zone districts, including the number of dwellings allowed on the site require rezoning and/or General Plan amendment.

Filing an Application

Most variances are processed as Zoning Administrator Development Permits with a public hearing. Come in and sign the Zoning Counter waiting list for help on a first-come basis. You will need to fill out an application form and submit a description of the project. Include all the items shown on the "List of Required Information", which the counter person will give you. Show on the plans where a variance is needed.

IMPORTANT: Explain in a written statement what the unique situation is, and why you believe it justifies a variance.

The property owner must sign either the application form or a separate owner-approval form.

Ask the counter staff planner for an estimate of how soon your application will be considered by the Zoning Administrator.

The Application Review Process

The planner assign to your project will visit the site, review your plans, and prepare a report of his/her analysis. This report will contain a description of the project, its location, and a recommendation either for approval (usually with certain conditions), or for denial if the findings cannot be made.


For the Zoning Administrator to approve a variance, he must make all of these findings:

  1. Special circumstances apply to the property. These can be it's size, shape, topography, location, or surrounding structures. You must explain how these circumstances deprive your property of the privileges enjoyed by other property in the neighborhood which is zoned the same, and;
  2. The variance will meet the intent of the zoning on the parcel, and will not be detrimental to public health, safety, and welfare, and not be detrimental to other property in the neighborhood; and,
  3. The variance will not be a grant of special privilege in the neighborhood, and will not allow you to build in a way that would not be allowed for someone else.

Public Notices

A copy of the staff report, findings, and recommendation for either approval or denial will be sent to the applicant. An announcement of the proposed variance will be published in a newspaper, posted on the site, and sent to owners of all property within 300 feet of the site, ten days before the hearing.

The Hearing

The Zoning Administrator will conduct a public hearing, which anyone may attend. You or your representative should attend the hearing. The |Zoning Administrator will make a decision, taking into consideration the staff report and recommendation and the statements made by the applicant and the public. The variance, if approved, becomes effective (subject to any conditions of approval) ten business days after the Zoning Administrator's decision, if not appealed.

A denial may also be appealed. See the Planning Appeals brochure.

Building Permit

Once the variance becomes effective and any other required reviews or development permits have been issued, you may apply for a building permit for the proposed construction. If it was determined that a variance was required after you had already applied for a building permit, your building permit application will be put on hold until a final decision has been reached on your variance request. When the variance has been issued, you must contact the Building Information line at 831-454-2260 or consult the Building Counter during walk-in hours so that staff may reactivate the review of your project.

For More Information

This brochure describes the procedure for obtaining a variance. For complete regulations on variance approvals, see the Santa Cruz County Code, Section 13.10.230. For residential site regulations, see Section 13.10.323.

If you have questions about variances, please contact the Zoning Information line at 831-454-2130 or consult the Zoning Counter during walk-in hours.