Free Market

What Variances and Special Permits Are, Why They Matter

Our culture heavily values feelings of independence, autonomy, and personal control. More pointedly, Utah and America as a whole place a significant amount of importance on personal freedom. It is in this quest to obtain freedom that many individuals will turn to homeownership as a means of securing their liberty. 

Unfortunately, Utahns are living in a reality in which home ownership is becoming increasingly challenging.

Within the state, home prices have risen exponentially. From 2020 to 2021, the median housing price in Utah increased by 24.6 percent, and three Utah cities — Provo, Ogden, and Salt Lake City — found themselves listed among the top ten most overpriced housing markets. In addition to rising housing costs, the supply of homes available for buyers has drastically decreased.

With supply low, demand high, and costs increasingly astronomical, many Utahns are facing homelessness or other forms of housing instability. This claim is illustrated by the number of Utahns experiencing first-time homelessness in 2021 being 14 percent higher than in 2020.

While it is easy to observe the current condition of the state’s housing market, it is more challenging to dissect what exactly is the culprit for such a devastating environment. Yet, arbitrary zoning laws and the unnecessary bureaucracy associated with zoning continue to stand out as likely factors. Specifically, barriers for those seeking variances or special permits can be pointed at as causes. 

Variances and special permits are actually laudable pieces of the zoning process. These mechanisms allow property owners to essentially skirt around certain overly restrictive zoning rules. Not only can these zoning cheat codes allow for innovative housing solutions that may increase the supply of low-cost housing, but they may also mitigate risks to citizens’ welfare as a result of infrastructure projects.

Yet, despite their benefits, cities greatly mismanage how variances and special permits are handed out. 

Cities have continually added layers of review that those seeking a variance or a special permit must pass through. These layers of review add time to the approval process, are often written in unclear language, and can be so burdensome that developers may be scared off altogether.  

Two pieces of the review process, public hearings and environmental reviews, stand out as inappropriate. 

Environmental reviews have the propensity to be long and often completely unnecessary. Nolan Grey, in his book Arbitrary Lines, beautifully demonstrates this point as he recounts that “on one project [he] worked on… the environmental assessment ran 130 pages [and] on another project… [it] ran close to 500 pages. In both cases… no significant environmental impacts were found.”

The process of public hearings associated with variances and special permits are problematic as they leave the door open for opponents to drag out the approval of development projects indefinitely. With many city codes lacking any firm time constraints over how long these hearings may last or the actions that may result from such hearings, opponents of affordable housing or innovative housing can essentially filibuster any potential project they dislike. While the public should have the ability to express their opinion, local officials must put guardrails in place to ensure efficiency and progress  in their cities. 

In addition to the lengthy review process, cities have also begun to charge exorbitant fees for those seeking a variance or special permit. These fees are not negligible. In Los Angeles, a simple variance costs $13,283, while a special permit costs $32,212.24. Just as with the review process, local officials must put guardrails in place. This time, guardrails must ensure that the fees charged to developers are not detrimentally high. 

Housing is a basic human necessity that provides individuals with security, control, belonging, identity, and privacy.  A person’s home allows one to make a space for themselves, separate from controlling forces, where they can interact successfully with the outside world. Without access to the positive results of stable housing, individuals may struggle to better their lives as they lack a stable environment to materialize personal growth. 

Local officials must protect this fundamental necessity by significantly reducing, expediting, or abolishing the hearing processes associated with obtaining a special permit or variance. If these arbitrary forms of government bureaucracy are diminished, Utahns may soon again have affordable and easily accessible housing options.