There are several reasons why a person or entity may apply for a variance, which is an exception to a zoning law. To obtain a variance to alter the dimensions of a property, the applicant might have to show that the variance will relieve a hardship based on the land’s unique characteristics. A local ordinance may exclude hardships related to the applicant’s physical or economic disability or the general characteristics of the surrounding area. In these situations, an applicant would have to tie their alleged hardship to the law to argue they should receive a variance. Recently, a Rhode Island Superior Court decision affirmed a zoning board’s approval of two variances for a historical property when the applicant cited multiple sources of hardship.
In the recently decided case, the owner of a carriage barn in a township’s historical district sought dimensional variances to build a first floor primary bedroom and a handicap-accessible bathroom. Appellants, whose property bordered the owner’s, argued that the proposed design did not demonstrate a genuine hardship. Instead, they characterized the additions as a mere design preference rather than preserving the land’s unique characteristics. At a zoning board hearing, the architect testified that she carefully considered the footprint of the proposed design, which would improve the property’s aesthetic qualities. The board granted the relief, finding that it would not alter the general character of the surrounding area. It also rejected Appellants’ alternative design proposals.
On appeal, Appellants argued, among other things, that the applicant failed to demonstrate genuine hardship because the modifications were related to her physical disability rather than the land’s unique characteristics, which violated a local ordinance. The Superior Court disagreed. Instead, it found that the board correctly determined that the applicant’s alleged hardship was not based solely on her disability but also the land’s unique characteristics. For example, by moving the property addition away from its existing footprint, the proposed design would separate the historical features from the modern expansion. Because the property was located in a historical district, the board correctly found this old vs. new distinction important to achieve a significant historical objective. Therefore, the court found substantial evidence to support the zoning board’s conclusion that the owner alleged a hardship sufficient to grant a variance.