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In order for cities to develop in an orderly fashion, city governments will use future growth maps, zoning ordinances, and other planning tools to help stabilize property values, save money through more efficiently planned infrastructure, and ensure that public health, safety, comfort, and general welfare is both promoted and protected. Zoning is the tool by which local government can control urban form by specifying the building use, size, and placement.

The Zoning Ordinance is Chapter 37 of the City of Champaign Municipal Code. Its purpose is to implement the policies of the City of Champaign Comprehensive Plan as adopted by the City Council.

A variation is a grant of relief from the terms of the Zoning Ordinance. The purpose of a variation is to ensure that no property is unreasonably deprived of the development opportunities that are commonly enjoyed by other properties in the same locality and district. A variation from the requirements of the Zoning Ordinance may only be granted subject to the Zoning Board of Appeals finding that the criteria, as specified by Article XIV, Division IV of the Zoning Ordinance, have been satisfied. There must be a significant reason to approve the variation because if there is not, a precedent of unfair treatment could be set that would invalidate the integrity of the Zoning Ordinance.

A variation is a special case when the Zoning Board of Appeals or the City Council votes to vary some portion of the Zoning Ordinance for a particular use of a particular lot because of unique difficulties caused by application of the Zoning Ordinance.

If the Zoning Administrator has rejected a permit application (or upon review of preliminary plans told the applicant their plans will not be approved) because it does not comply with a specific section of the Zoning Ordinance, and the applicant believes that their circumstances are unique and it would not be feasible to revise their plans to comply with the Zoning Ordinance, the applicant may wish to apply for a variation.

As part of the City Code, the City Council has specified six classifications upon which the Zoning Board of Appeals may grant approval without further review, and these are called “minor” variations. Any other variation is a “major” variation, and these variations are subject to review by the City Council. When the applicant makes their original application and the Planning and Development Department Staff reviews it, City staff will inform the applicant which type of variation they are requesting.

The six minor variations include:

  • A reduction of up to 25% of the minimum required lot width or lot area.
  • A reduction of up to 50% of the minimum required side or rear yard.
  • A reduction of up to 25% of the minimum required front yard.
  • A reduction of up to 25% of the total number of required off-street parking spaces.
  • An alternative landscape that would reduce the amount of required plant material or reduce the area of landscaping by 25%.
  • A reduction of up to 100% of the required side yard for fire escapes or ramps for handicap accessibility when the building was constructed prior to January 1, 1992.

It should be noted that findings must be met for the granting of minor variations as well, practical difficulties and unusual circumstances must be shown. No request may be automatically granted by the Zoning Board of Appeals.

The Planning and Development Department has an application form which must be completed. The application form includes eight “findings of fact” which comprise the bulk of the argument for a variation request. City staff is available to assist the applicant when completing the findings. It is often helpful to schedule an appointment to review the application when it is formally submitted. Staff cannot supply legal advice, nor is it required, but applicants are welcome to bring an attorney, architect, builder, or anyone else they believe will be helpful to any meeting.

The application asks for a variety of information including name and address of the applicant; existing zoning classification; provision of the Zoning Ordinance the applicant is seeking to vary and a description of the variance being sought; a legal description of the subject property; the findings of fact; a drawing to illustrate the nature of the variation request; evidence that design options which comply with the Ordinance provisions are not feasible; a review fee; and other relevant characteristics about the subject property.

My Request is for a “Major” Variation

Because “major” variations are reviewed by the City Council, Planning and Development Department staff must prepare minutes of the public hearing before the Zoning Board of Appeals for the City Council to review. The Planning and Development Department will then prepare the entire variation request for City Council review and schedule it for the next available meeting. Because it requires time for City staff to prepare the minutes, and because the City Council holds regular meetings twice a month, this will add time to the approval process. Staff will work as quickly as possible to meet City Council’s agendas, but this realistically takes an extra month following Zoning Board of Appeals approval.

Major variations also require more stringent findings of fact, including unusual hardship in meeting Ordinance requirements and unique circumstances which means that relatively few, if any, other properties in the City share the same circumstances.

Planning and Development Department staff will schedule a public hearing at the next available meeting of the Zoning Board of Appeals. The Zoning Board of Appeals is regularly scheduled to meet on the third Thursday of each month, and state law requires that a legal notice of the public hearing be published in the newspaper 15 days before any hearing. Staff will be responsible for writing the legal notice but the applicant will be billed directly by The News-Gazette for the advertisement of the public hearing. Staff will also send a notice by mail to all surrounding property owners within 250 feet of the subject property.

The review fee for a Zoning Variation is $65 and is to be submitted at the time of application.

The public hearing before the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) is a quasi-judicial hearing. It is not a trial, but there are some similarities. The ZBA is a little less formal. Staff will outline the ZBA procedures so the applicant will know what to expect and can properly prepare for the meeting.

The Chair of the ZBA will call the meeting to order and proceed with roll call and minutes from the past meeting. The next item on a regular meeting agenda is public hearings, which is where the ZBA will hear the requests for variation in order.  The applicant should receive an agenda in the mail before the meeting which will let explain when their case will be called.

When the Chair calls the applicant’s case, all persons wishing to testify for the applicant will be sworn in. In order to save time, all persons wishing to testify for a case will be sworn in at once. In some instances, the Chair will swear in all the people testifying for all the cases at once. The swearing in has the same legal effect as it would in a regular trial and persons making false statements under oath are subject to prosecution for perjury.

After the Chair has called the case, City staff will summarize the technical aspects of the variation request, i.e. the applicable section and paragraph of the Zoning Ordinance and the exact variation requested from this standard. City staff will then make its recommendation as part of their presentation.

The Chair will then ask the applicant if they have any additional comments. This is their opportunity to present facts pertinent to the case that were not previously made by staff. It is not necessary to comment at this time, but if choosing to do so, keep any statements to a maximum of five minutes. This is also the proper time for any professional the applicant may have to make their presentation.

The Chair will then ask, in order, for all other persons in favor of the variation, and then the opposed, to make their presentation to the ZBA.

The Board asks that in order to save time, the initial presentations of both the applicant and the City be limited to 15 minutes, and that other interested persons limit their presentations to three minutes.

Following the initial presentation, the ZBA, City staff, and applicant may ask questions about the initial presentation or the proposed variation. As this is not a regular trial, this is not a cross examination, and the ZBA operates on parliamentary procedure. What this means is that questions are directed through the ZBA, rather than directly between applicant and staff.

During the hearing, the ZBA will sometimes “suspend the rules.” This means that the ZBA members will discuss the proposed variation among themselves informally, and temporarily would like to limit input from staff and the applicant. Their conversations, while under “suspension” are still a part of the official recorded record.

The ZBA will then “reinstate the rules” and formally vote on the granting of the variation.

Sometimes the course of the public hearing will lead the ZBA to conclude that more information is needed before they can decide to grant a variation. When this happens, they will ask the applicant if they would like to request a continuance to another meeting in order to obtain the added information for the ZBA to consider. When a meeting is continued, the new meeting time and date will be decided and announced at the current meeting.

If the ZBA denies the grant of either a minor or major variation, the decision of the ZBA is final.

If a minor variation is granted, the decision of the ZBA is final. If a major variation is granted, it must proceed to the City Council for final approval.