Zoning Board of Adjustment: Roles and Responsibilities

Understanding Boards of Adjustment in terms of Appeals, Interpretations,Variances,and Discretionary decisions.


The zoning board of adjustment

The zoning board of adjustment is known by different names, depending on your state: board of adjustment, board of zoning appeals, zoning board of appeals, board of adjustments and appeals or simply variance board. Likewise, the types and functions of boards of adjustment vary from state to state, depending on the authority granted to them by the state enabling legislation and interpretations of the enabling legislation by state courts.

In general, the board of adjustment is the body established to:

  • hear appeals of decisions rendered by zoning administrators
  • interpret unclear provisions in the zoning ordinance
  • decide on applications by landowners to permit buildings or land uses which vary from the zoning regulations.

In a number of states, the board of adjustment might also review applications that require the exercise of discretion, such as special exceptions.



Administrative appeals

Zoning administrators are given the authority to make many decisions relating to the implementation of the zoning ordinance. If a landowner is dissatisfied with the zoning administrator’s decision, the landowner has a right to appeal the decision to the board of adjustment. It is the board of adjustment’s job to determine the appropriateness of the administrator’s decision, based on the purpose and intent of the regulations. As part of this process, it often becomes necessary for the board to interpret unclear provisions of the ordinance that have led to the difference of opinion between the administrator and the landowner over the application of the regulations.



Sometimes the zoning ordinance is not clear, and the zoning administrator, or some other party, wants clarification or has an issue with how the zoning ordinance is being interpreted. In these instances, the board of adjustment’s job is to determine the appropriate interpretation of that clause or part of the zoning ordinance.



Zoning regulations cannot be written to address every possible situation that comes about from the use of property. The zoning board of adjustment, therefore, is granted the authority to allow minor exceptions to the existing zoning rules to allow a landowner to do what would be otherwise generally forbidden by the ordinance. Variances are not supposed to be easy to obtain and require a showing of either “practical difficulties” or “unnecessary hardship,” depending on the type of variance being sought and the law particular to each state

Discretionary decisions: special exceptions (aka special uses or conditional uses).

In each zoning district two broad classes of land uses are explicitly identified: (1) permitted uses, which are those listed by the ordinance as being allowed by right in any location, and (2) special exceptions, which are listed by the ordinance as being permissible only at the discretion of one of the zoning administrative boards.  In a number of states, that board may be the zoning board of adjustment.  Special exceptions are generally uses that make them unique and slightly out of character with permitted uses.  In order to be granted a special exception, the applicant must be able to show that the requested use can be made to fit into its surroundings.

Gary D. Taylor, Iowa State University

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