City variance ordinance to get bit of a makeover

Sean C. Morgan

The Sweet Home Planning Commission this month began reviewing and revising its variance ordinance, the latest in a series of ordinance revisions.

“This is just cleanup,” said Carol Lewis, community development director. The ordinance is two pages long, and the commission will probably use some of the language from the recently completed conditional use ordinance to clean up the language in the ordinance.

The Planning Commission simply reviewed the ordinance and identified areas that might need changing at its meeting on Oct. 3.

Among them, variances may be granted when a regulation on a property causes an “undue or unnecessary hardship,” Lewis said. “What constitutes an undue or unnecessary hardship? It’s vague.”

The commission and Lewis would like to make it easy for people applying to know the answer, she said.

Under the existing ordinance, the commission has four criteria to consider, but nowhere does it say criteria must be met, Lewis said. Within the criteria, she has concerns about the language too.

First is that exceptional or extraordinary circumstances apply based on the lot size or shape, topography and other circumstances over which owners have no control.

Lewis is questioning what makes a circumstance exceptional or extraordinary. In other ordinances, the city has been using the word “special.”

At this point, she is not sure how the city will alter the criterion, Lewis said.

Another criterion is that the variance must be necessary to preserve a property right, she said, but sometimes those property rights are based more on the human factor, such as finances.

The Planning Commission has done variances on paving requirements or delayed the requirement for a year to help make homes more affordable, Lewis said.

The application process technically is supposed to go through the city manager’s office under the existing ordinance, Lewis said, and they are administratively approved when the variance is 10 percent or less from the rule. City staff sometimes refers variance requests to the Planning Commission when staff members recognize looming controvery over a request.

Lewis would like to see the ordinance define more clearly when a variance application should move to the commission level.

Similar to the conditional use ordinance, Lewis wants to determine how a variance may transfer, she said. For example, if she built a home but received a variance from paving requirements and then sold the home, she wants the ordinance to tell her whether the variance transfers to the new owner.

Lewis hopes to complete the process more quickly than recent ordinance revisions, including signs, planned developments, conditional uses and subdivisions.

The commission won’t work on the ordinance in November, when it has public hearings scheduled, but will probably pick it up again in December and start making actual revisions.

She will return to the commission with a draft ordinance in January, and that draft could change. Lewis expects that it might reach the City Council by March.

The Planning Commission will hold a public hearing on the ordinance and then make a recommendation to the council, which will hold a second public hearing.

Anyone who wishes to provide input or look at the existing ordinance or drafts later can call the office at 367-8113 or visit City Hall at 1140 12th Ave. The existing ordinance can be found on the city’s website, The variance ordinance is chapter 17.88.