Understanding Commercial Variance Permits vs. Change of Use Permits

The world of permits can be intricate and confusing, particularly between commercial variance permits and change of use permits. This article will provide clear definitions of these permits and investigate their unique purposes. It’s important to note that obtaining these permits can be complex, so seeking assistance from professionals in this field is highly recommended.

Exploring Change of Use Permits

A change of use permit allows for modifying how a space is utilized. Before making any changes, obtaining approval from the city’s planning department is crucial. This permit ensures compliance with applicable codes for the new use and provides a Certificate of Occupancy for new businesses or spaces where significant work is optional.

However, acquiring a change of use permit involves multiple steps, including reviews by entities such as the Historical Planning Society, coastal commission (if near the ocean), city council, zoning requirements, and neighborhood councils.

Commercial Variance Permits

They can be categorized into area and use variances. An area variance is requested when the land’s configuration or existing structures present challenges in meeting legal setbacks defined by code and zoning laws. This variance aims to balance the owner’s hardship and public safety.

Conversely, a use variance authorizes a land use that deviates from the zoning ordinance. Acquiring a use variance may involve a process like a conditional use permit, as it requires significant changes to the city’s zoning codes.

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Key Differences and Considerations

While both commercial variance permits and change of use permits involve modifying the usage of space, there are several significant differences to consider:

Revocability: One crucial distinction is that change of use permits cannot be revoked once obtained. Once a space is approved for a specific function, it can be used indefinitely. In contrast, commercial variance permits do not offer the same level of permanence and may be subject to changes in zoning regulations or city ordinances.

Approval Process: Change of use permits typically involve a comprehensive review process, including scrutiny by various entities. Conversely, obtaining a commercial variance permit might require demonstrating specific hardships related to the land or structures on the property.

Zoning Implications: Commercial variance permits can have long-lasting effects on zoning ordinances, as they may require changes to comply with the proposed land use. Change-of-use permits, however, focus more on ensuring compliance with codes and regulations without necessitating extensive modifications to the existing zoning framework.


Understanding the distinctions between commercial variance permits and change of use permits is crucial when embarking on a project that involves modifying the usage of space. While change-of-use permits provide flexibility in altering the function of an area, commercial variance permits cater to situations where compliance with setbacks or zoning ordinances is challenging. Seeking guidance from permit experts will help you navigate the complexities of obtaining these permits and ensure a smooth transition for your project.

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