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San Ramon LogoAbout Variances and Minor Exceptions


What is a Variance/Minor Exception?

Land use rules say what kinds of uses can go where in a community.  They also regulate what happens on an individual piece of property.  Things like building height limits and parking space requirements are examples of these kinds of rules.  As with San Ramon, typically these rules are found in a city or county’s zoning code.

A landowner may feel that one or more rules impose a unique hardship.  If so, one option is for the owner to request to be excused from complying with that rule.  This is called a Variance (because the owner is allowed to “vary” from the rules that usually apply). 

A Minor Exception is another form of a Variance that allows minor adjustments to the zoning standards, primarily for architectural purposes. Section D6-24 of the Zoning Ordinance identifies the type of Minor Exception allowed and the permitted maximum adjustment.

General Concept

Landowners tend to ask for a variance when the physical aspects of property pose unique challenges.  Examples include lot size, shape, terrain, location, or surroundings.  For example, lot with large heritage trees may need an exception to a setback requirement in order to be built on to preserve the trees.

The goal of granting a Variance or Minor Exceptions is to enable property to be used in a practical manner. Variances or Minor Exceptions are, in essence, permission to break rules that others must follow.  As a result, these are not granted easily.


Key Questions for a Variance

  • What special circumstances justify granting a variance?

  • How does enforcing of the rules deprive the property owner of privileges that others enjoy?
  • What kinds of conditions can be imposed on a variance to make sure that everyone is treated fairly?
Key Questions for a Minor Exception
  • Does a  practical alternative exists?

  • Will the purpose of the subject zone would not be compromised?

  • Will a detrimental impact result aesthetically?

  • Is the proposed construction project otherwise be in compliance with all applicable Zoning Ordinance standards and requirements?


When deciding whether to grant a Variance or a Minor Exception, decision-makers must make written findings explaining why a variance is or is not justified. These explanations must be backed up with facts that also become part of the written record of the decision.  Generally, financial hardship, community benefit, or the worthiness of the project is not a consideration in determining whether to approve a Variance or Minor Exception.

What if the problem is that a landowner wants to use property in a way that is not allowed in a zone?  An example is someone who wants to locate a business in a residential zone. The solution to that problem would be to seek a Rezoning or a Land Use Permit not a Variance or Minor Exception.

Decision-Making Process

Decision-makers want to hear from those who have opinions or information about whether to approve a proposed Variance or Minor Exception.  If you want to share your thoughts, see “Suggestions for Providing Effective Testimony at a Planning Commission Public Hearing”

Application Information

To file an application please take a few minutes to review Development Application and Building Permit Processing Timelines.  This document will provide you with an overview our process and processing times. To apply for a Variance or Minor Exception you will need to download the following documents:            

We encourage all applicants to contact the Planning Services Division to schedule a meeting prior to filing your application. This will provide us with an opportunity to review the appropriate forms, discuss the process, including environmental review, the necessary committee and commission meetings, projected timelines any potential issues and answer questions you might have. We may be reached at (925) 973-2560.

To Learn More

  • The Planning Commissioner’s Handbook, League of California Cities, 2005, Chapter 4: The Planning Framework www.ca-ilg.org/pch4



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2401 Crow Canyon Rd, San Ramon, CA 94583 | Map | Phone (925) 973-2560 | Fax (925) 838-3231