How Do I Get a Zoning Variance In Wisconsin?

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What Is a Zoning Variance?

Landowners may need a zoning variance for a variety of reasons. A variance may be necessary to comply with setback requirements on an oddly shaped lot, to build a new structure or addition, or construct a deck or patio. Variances may also be required if a property owner’s use of their land changed over time. Zoning requirements differ between communities and therefore whether an individual needs a variance will vary depending on where they live.

Zoning variances allow property owners to deviate from current zoning requirements. A zoning variance permits the property owner to use the land in a manner not otherwise permitted by the zoning ordinance. A variance does not change the zoning law. Instead, it is a waiver of specific requirements of the zoning ordinance.

Types of Zoning Variances

There are two types of variances: (1) area variances; and (2) use variances. An area variance is a modification to a physical or location requirement of a zoning ordinance.  For example, an oddly shaped property may prevent an owner from complying with a setback requirement. The owner could apply for a variance to construct a building in violation of the strict rules of the zoning code.

A use variance is a modification to the use of land for a purpose that is not allowed by a zoning ordinance. To acquire a use variance the property owner must show that strictly complying with the zoning ordinance leaves the property owner with no reasonable use of the property. This may be difficult because the request asks the zoning board to permit a use the local governing body already decided is unwanted. It is crucial to have a well-articulated basis for doing so.

What Is the Process for Getting a Variance?

First, the property owner must submit a variance application to the local zoning board of adjustment. The matter then goes to a public hearing. At the hearing, the board takes evidence and considers whether the property owner established three conditions. Those conditions include: unnecessary hardship, unique property limitations, and the variance poses no harm to public interest. To receive a variance, the property owner must satisfy all three requirements. 

Notably, the unique condition must attach to land, not the people on it, and the hardship cannot be created by the property owner. For example, a disabled person would not be entitled to a variance due to their disability. Additionally, to acquire a use variance the property owner must show that the zoning ordinance unreasonably prevents them from using their property for a permitted purpose or that conforming with the ordinance is unnecessarily burdensome.

The local zoning board decides whether to grant a variance. Typically, the board must explain the basis for the decision in writing. If the homeowner doesn’t agree with the decision, then they may appeal a zoning board decision to the circuit court for judicial review.


Murdock Law has helped many individuals navigate various zoning requirements and issues. If you encounter zoning laws you feel unfairly prevent you from using your property, contact us toll-free at 1-844-744-7529.

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