What is the ZBA?

In New York State, a system that must be in place in any town that enforces zoning laws is a Zoning Board of Appeals, or “ZBA”.  Any landowner who is denied his/her application to construct or use his/her property in a certain manner has the legal right to appeal that denial to the town’s ZBA, and ask for an exception to be made.  That exception is called a “variance”.  New York State law defines quite precisely the procedures, issues, questions, and tests the ZBA must consider in deciding whether to grant or deny that requested exception, or “variance”.

In the town of Varick, area variances are heard by the ZBA. These usually have to do with the size, shape, or location of buildings. Use variances, which allow you to do things like have a business in a residential area, are heard first by the Planning Board.

Public Hearings
All business (with a few limited exceptions) transacted by any governmental bodies in NY State (including a town’s ZBA) must be done in public.  In addition, any consideration of a variance application must include an opportunity for the public to speak at the ZBA meeting, and offer their input and opinions on the matter.  Notices of these public hearings appear in a local newspaper.

Town residents can speak in favor or against the application.  They can even ask questions, and the applicant may respond with information important to the neighbors.  The ZBA may make a decision at the same meeting, or it may choose to defer the decision to another meeting, sometimes pending the receipt of further information about the application or the property.

Making Decisions
The ZBA consists of five members, and they are appointed by the Town Board.  (The Town Board members were elected by the Town residents.)  Decisions are made by a majority vote of the members.  In certain cases the variance application must first be considered by the County Planning Board, and then the County’s decision is considered by the ZBA as well. 

The ZBA is sometimes seen as the bad guy (usually by an applicant who is denied a variance) because it appears that the landowner is being denied his/her right to do what he/she wants with his/her own property.  Sometimes the neighbors become unhappy with the ZBA because a variance is granted.  The important thing to keep in mind is that the real purpose of the ZBA is to safeguard the rights of all of the townspeople to ensure that the long-term goals and vision of the Town are preserved.  The ZBA tries to find creative “win-win” solutions so the applicant can achieve his/her goals while the Town avoids (or minimizes) any negative impacts on the community as a whole.

(copied and adapted from Town of Nelson's excellent ZBA summary. (2011))