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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

Sometimes people find it difficult or impossible to meet zone district standards because of an unusual situation affecting their property. 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, a use that is not allowed in the zone districts cannot be approved with a variance and would instead require a rezoning and/or General Plan amendment.

Filing an Application

Please review the information on the Discretionary Permits webpage.  

IMPORTANT: As a part of your variance application, you will be asked to describe the unique situation affecting your parcel, and why you believe it justifies approval of a variance.

The Application Review Process

The planner assigned to your project will visit the site, review your plans, and prepare a report with their 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.


The following findings must be made to approve a varaince:

  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) 14 calendar days after the Zoning Administrator's decision, if not appealed. A denial may also be appealed. See the Planning Appeals webpage.

For More Information

The information above provides an overview of 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, contact us by email at or by self-scheduling an appointment with Zoning staff.