General Variance Process
The Unified Land Development Code has specific numerical development standards, such as setbacks or building height, which all development must comply with. There are occasions, however, when the strict application of such standards may be inappropriate because of special characteristics of the property. The variance procedure is designed to permit minor adjustments to the development regulations when there are special or extraordinary circumstances applying to a parcel of land or a building. A variance is only granted when strict enforcement of the development standards as it applies to a specific lot would present practical difficulties in the use of the property and without the variance, the property becomes unusable [MICCC 19.15.020 (G)(4)].
What justifies a variance?
Special circumstances may include factors such as size, shape, topography, location of the lot, the trees, ground cover, or other physical conditions of the lot and its surroundings; or factors necessary for the successful installation of a solar energy system such as a particular orientation of a building for the purposes of solar access. The adjustments permitted by a variance are limited to specific numerical development standards. A change of use cannot be permitted by the variance procedure (such as an automotive dealership in a residential zone). In addition, a finding must be made that granting of the variance will not be materially detrimental to the public welfare or injurious to the property or improvements in the vicinity and zone in which the property is situated. The granting of the variance cannot alter the character of the neighborhood, nor impair the appropriate use or development of adjacent property.
Variances are reviewed by a Hearing Examiner. It is important to stress that a variance can only be granted if a finding of a special circumstance, as previously described, is made. A variance cannot be granted to simply make property development less costly or to expand the use of the property.
Click here to view the required criteria for a decision.
How do I apply for a variance?
Early in the consideration of a potential project, you should carefully review the Unified Land Development Code to see if all regulations are met. Alternatives should be thoroughly investigated to see if there is any way to accomplish the project objectives without requesting a variance. The burden of proof is on the applicant to demonstrate that they meet the applicable variance criteria, they have considered alternatives and explain why those alternatives are not feasible, and they need the variance they are requesting. (Note: An application for a variance involves substantial time, expense, and risk for a property owner. Application does not guarantee approval. Fees are not refunded if the application is denied; applicants are proceeding at their "own risk. (Click here for the fee schedule.)
After reviewing the applicable development regulations as they relate to your project, you may want to make an appointment to meet with a planner to discuss your proposed variance application, prior to submitting the Variance application.
Filing of Application
Click here for a Variance Application. Only completed applications are accepted by the Development Services Group. Your application will be reviewed to make sure all of the necessary information is provided. Please keep in mind that the application material you submit is public information and may be reviewed by members of the public, so good organization and a clear and concise written narrative of the variance request and your response to the applicable variance criteria is important.
After the complete project application is submitted, your application is assigned to a staff planner. The staff planner assigned to the project will be your primary contact and staff liaison throughout the process. The application is routed to any necessary outside agencies and City staff members who will provide input on the project. Within 28 days after the application is submitted, the staff planner assigned to the project will notify you whether the application is complete for processing or whether additional information is required.
When the application is deemed complete, the variance application will be noticed in the City's Permit Bulletin.
Property owners within 300 feet of the subject property will be notified by mail of the proposed variance and will be give a minimum of 14 days to provide written comment on the project. Public comment may also be given at the public hearing. The applicant is responsible for posting a public notice sign of the proposed variance in a prominent location on the site visible from the street. The notices identify the nature of the variance and, if applicable, will give the time, date and place of any public hearing.
Who has the final say?
A decision is final, unless a party of record files an appeal. The appeal must be made within 14 days after the City's notice of decision. An appeal will be heard by the Planning Commission, who will issue a decision affirming, modifying or reversing the administrative decision.
The Planning Commission decision is final, unless a party of record* files an appeal. The appeal must be made within 14 days after notice of decision. The Planning Commission's decision may be appealed by a party of record with standing by filing a land use petition in King County superior court. Such petition must be filed within 21 days of the issuance of the Planning Commission's decision.
(*A party of record is anyone who submitted written comment, within the advertised comment period, or if there is a public hearing, provided oral testimony during the public comment portion of the hearing.)
How long will the process take?
The estimated time for processing a variance application will vary depending upon the complexity and magnitude of the change and staff workload. You will be notified within 28 days of submitting your application as to whether staff has determined the project application to be complete or whether the application requires additional information. Once an application is determined to be complete, the Hearing Examiner has 120 days to issue a notice of decision. Most variances are categorically exempt from environmental review. If environmental review is required, allow additional time for staff review and determination.
This information is summarized from Title 19 of the Mercer Island City Code, "Unified Land Development Code" and is provided for quick reference only. To determine exact requirements, and for other development regulations affecting a parcel or lot, Title 19 should be consulted.