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If requesting a use variance, that is, permission to establish a use of property not otherwise permitted in the zoning district, the applicant must prove "unnecessary hardship." To prove this, State law requires the applicant to show all of the following:
(1) that the property is incapable of earning a reasonable return on initial investment if used for any of the allowed uses in the district (actual "dollars and cents" proof must be submitted);
(2) that the property is being affected by unique, or at least highly uncommon circumstances;
(3) that the variance, if granted, will not alter the essential character of the neighborhood; and
(4) that the hardship is not self-created.
If any one or more of the above factors is not proven, State law requires that the ZBA must deny the variance.
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A person may want to appeal to the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) for two basic reasons. First, he or she may disagree with a decision the enforcement officer has made or an action he or she has taken. Second, the appealing party may believe that an exception (variance) to the zoning laws should be made for his or her property.
Either the applicant or the applicant’s representative must file a Notice of Appeal with the ZBA within 60 days after the enforcement officer has filed his or her decision or action. The enforcement officer’s decision is filed in his or her office, unless the municipal governing board has authorized it to be filed instead in the municipal clerk’s office. A copy of the Notice of Appeal must also be filed with the enforcement officer.
Except in certain instances, an applicant must be "aggrieved" by an actual decision or action taken by the enforcement officer. The exceptions occur where an applicant has already submitted an application for subdivision, site plan, or special use permit approval which requires an area variance in connection with that approval. In those instances, no decision of the enforcement officer is necessary. The applicant may simply file a Notice of Appeal directly with the ZBA.
Anyone who could be "aggrieved" by the decision or action of the enforcement officer, has standing to take an appeal before the ZBA. A person is “aggrieved” if his or her property value is affected negatively by the enforcement officer’s action. Commonly, a property owner who either has been refused a permit or has been served with an enforcement action, is the "aggrieved party." Also note, as stated above, that a landowner who has submitted an application for subdivision, site plan, or special use permit approval, may apply to the ZBA for an area variance without a decision of the enforcement officer. A neighboring landowner may also be an "aggrieved party", if he or she believes the enforcement officer's decision in issuing a permit was improper, and will negatively affect their property value. In addition, any officer, board or commission of the municipality may appeal a decision of the enforcement officer, whether or not that officer, board or commission is aggrieved.
Any decision or action issued in writing by the enforcement officer, which affects anyone's rights, is appealable. These decisions include: the grant or denial of a permit, the issuance of an appearance ticket or summons, or any order which mandates certain action, such as a cease-and-desist or stop-work order
The ZBA can grant (or deny) two types of relief: interpretive and variance. In either case, the ZBA will either affirm, reverse, or modify the enforcement officer's decision. In so doing, it will either grant or deny the requested relief. If the appeal is for an interpretation, the ZBA's decision will be based on the municipal zoning regulations. On the other hand, if the appeal is for a variance, the ZBA's decision will be based on the standards of proof contained in the following state statutes: §267-b of the New York State Town Law, §7-712-b of the Village Law, or §81-b of the General City Law. Because of the range of powers the ZBA has, it is essential that the applicant (or the applicant’s representative) know what type of relief to request when making application to the ZBA. If the applicant believes the enforcement officer's decision is incorrect, the appropriate request is for an interpretation reversing the officer's decision. If the applicant (in this case, the landowner) believes that the officer's decision may be correct, but that he or she can show proof under the statutes that a variance is warranted, then the appropriate request is for a decision granting a variance. It is also possible for an applicant to make a request for an interpretation, and, in the same application, ask for a variance if a favorable interpretation is not granted.
After a Notice of Appeal has been filed, the ZBA will take up the matter at a future meeting. The ZBA is required to schedule a hearing on the applicant's appeal within a reasonable time, and give notice of the hearing to the applicant. If a variance is requested, the ZBA may be required to take some preliminary steps before it may hear the case.
First, the ZBA may have to make a determination of significance under the State's Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA). Based on this determination, an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) may or may not be required. If an EIS is required, the case cannot be heard until the EIS has been completed and accepted by the ZBA. Environmental review is not necessary for interpretations of the zoning regulations or for area variances relating to setbacks and lot lines, or for area variances relating to one-, two-, or three-family residences.
Second, depending on the location of the property, the ZBA may be required by State law to refer requests for variances to the county planning agency for a preliminary recommendation. If such a referral is required, the ZBA must give the county 30 days to respond. It is also possible that the county's recommendation could result in an increase in the number of votes needed for the ZBA to approve the variance. Appeals for interpretations need not be referred to the county.
At the hearing, the applicant may submit written evidence and/or argument to support his or her case. Obviously, the sooner that written testimony or material is received, the more time ZBA members will have to consider the case and reach a proper decision. Therefore, it is a good idea to submit written material with the application, or as soon thereafter as possible, so that it can be sent to ZBA members prior to the hearing. (Please note that the applicant can present written evidence at any time up to the close of the hearing, or even after the hearing if the ZBA allows the record to remain open.)
At the hearing, the ZBA will offer the applicant and/or the applicant’s representative the opportunity to present a case for relief. The applicant may personally testify, call witnesses, or submit written evidence, including drawings and graphics. Because an appeal is an adversarial proceeding, the ZBA will offer the municipality an equal opportunity to present its side of the case (the side which supports the enforcement officer's decision).
Each side will be given an opportunity to question the other, or the other's witnesses. In addition, ZBA members may ask questions. After the applicant and the municipality have presented their cases, any other interested persons will be given the opportunity to speak and/or submit written material. If necessary, the hearing may be adjourned and continued at a later date. When all parties and interested persons have been granted the opportunity to be heard, the hearing will be closed.
Once the hearing is closed, the ZBA may begin discussing the case and reach a decision, or may postpone discussion and/or its decision until a later meeting. If the ZBA deems it necessary, the hearing may be reopened at any time. Once the hearing has been finally closed, the ZBA must make its decision within 62 days.
If requesting a reversal on an interpretative basis, the applicant must prove that the enforcement officer's decision was incorrect, according to a proper reading of the municipality's zoning regulations. If the ZBA has heard a case in the past which involved an interpretation of the same provision, the ZBA's decision will be consistent with its prior ruling. If the ZBA has never interpreted the particular provision at issue, it will use its best judgment as to the municipal governing board's original intent in enacting the provision. Secondarily, the ZBA will try to arrive at the best practical solution for future application by the enforcement officer.
Careful and thorough reference will be given to all definitions and other provisions of the regulations. If necessary, the ZBA will refer to authoritative publications on planning and zoning law. The applicant may, of course, use those resources in presenting his own case as well.
If requesting an area variance, that is, permission to build in an otherwise restricted portion of the property (such as in the required front, side or rear yards, or above the required building height, or in excess of the lot coverage regulations), then State law requires the applicant to show that the benefit the applicant stands to receive from the variance will outweigh any burden to health, safety and welfare that may be suffered by the community. State law requires the ZBA to take the following factors into consideration in making its determination:
(1) whether an undesirable change will be produced in the character of the neighborhood, or a detriment to nearby properties will be created by the granting of the area variance;
(2) whether the benefit sought by the applicant can be achieved by some method which will be feasible for the applicant to pursue but would not require a variance;
(3) whether the requested area variance is substantial;
(4) whether the proposed variance will have an adverse effect or impact on the physical or environmental conditions in the neighborhood or district; and
(5) whether an alleged difficulty is self-created.
Unlike the use variance test, the ZBA need not find in favor of the applicant on every one of the above questions. Rather, the ZBA must merely take each one of the factors into account. The ZBA may also decide that a lesser variance than the one requested would be appropriate, or may decide that there are alternatives available to the applicant which would not require a variance.
Whether the ZBA decides to grant a use or area variance, State law requires the ZBA to grant the minimum variance necessary to provide relief, while at the same time taking care to protect the character of the neighborhood and the health, safety and welfare of the community. For these same reasons, the ZBA may also impose reasonable conditions on the grant of any variance.