Municipal zoning ordinances control how property owners can use and develop their property. However, governments can grant variances that excuse compliance with certain zoning ordinances in appropriate circumstances.
Minnesota allows a property owner to continue to use their land in a way that does not conform with a zoning ordinance if that use was taking place before the ordinance was passed. Owners may repair, replace, restore, improve or maintain the property, but cannot engage in expansion. In a 2010 case, however, the state Supreme Court ruled that a city can also expand the use of a non-conforming structure by adopting an ordinance.
Municipalities may also grant a variance if strict enforcement of an existing ordinance will cause an undue hardship because of unique hardships to the specific property. An undue hardship means that the property cannot be put to "reasonable use" under conditions allowed by the official rules, the landowner's plight is caused by circumstances unique to the property beyond the landowner's control and any granted variance would not alter the locality's essential character.
The Minnesota Supreme Court defined the meaning of "reasonable use" in its 2010 opinion. It strictly ruled that the variance meets this requirement under Minnesota zoning laws only if the property cannot be used reasonably at all without the variance.
This opinion overruled other cases allowing a more flexible standard. This more liberal standard allowed the variance if the property owner would like to use the property in a reasonable manner that the existing ordinances prohibits.
In this case, the court overruled a decision involving property in Minnetonka where the property owner was granted a variance for adding a pitched roof and second story to an existing non-conforming garage by showing an undue hardship in that the property. The owner intended to construct a yoga studio and craft room. The case was sent back to the zoning board for use of the correct legal standard. For businesses in Minnesota, conforming to zoning ordinances or seeking valid ordinances can determine the outcome of commercial real estate transactions.
Source: FindLaw, "Krummenacher v. City of Minnetonka, No. A08-1988 (2010)," Accessed Nov. 23, 2015