Difference between special use permits and variances

Special use permits and variances are zoning tools that protect communities and properties while providing flexibility to landowners and municipalities.

The distinction between special use permits and variances is one that can sometimes cause confusion with landowners.

Special Use Permits

Special use permits relate to uses that are allowed in specific zoning districts provided they meet certain conditions set out in the ordinance. Those conditions are generally related to avoiding adverse impacts on the neighboring area. An example of a special use would be an allowance of a home business such as a tax service, hair salon, daycare, or small engine repair in a rural residential area.


Variances allow for the approval of uses and structures that would otherwise be prohibited because they do not meet the ordinance's requirements (such as minimum property line setback or lot size requirements). To obtain a variance, the applicant must ordinarily show “hardship,” which typically means proving that permitting the applicant to vary from the ordinance's requirements is the only way the property can be expected to provide a reasonable use and return.

In contrast, an applicant for a special use permit does not have to show hardship. Instead, the focus is on simply showing that the proposed use meets the conditions already contained in the ordinance, whereas a variance is, in essence, permission to “break the law.”

Special use permits and variances are both utilized to protect the integrity of the community and the rights and value of neighboring properties. They provide flexibility for both the municipality and property owner to allow for reasonable uses of the property while minimizing adverse impacts to neighbors. Michigan State University Extension’s nationally recognized Michigan Citizen Planner program addresses both special use permits and variances in greater detail.

If you are a property owner looking to make a change to your property that may require a special use permit or variance, take the time to call your community’s zoning administrator. He or she will be happy to explain the ordinance and assist you with the application process.

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