Use Variances Remain a Challenging Process
The Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court in South Broad Street Neighborhood Association v. Philadelphia Zoning Board of Adjustment affirmed that local governments must strictly apply the Municipalities Planning Code use-variance requirements. The Court also affirmed that a property owner does not possess a right to the allegedly “most productive use” of a property that outweighs application of even outdated zoning regulations. 
A developer sought a use-variance from the general zoning regulations. A use-variance effectively seeks an exception from the general zoning regulations for a specific property based on the applicant’s desire for a specific use contrary to the zoning regulations. Due to the Constitutional rights of neighboring properties and the community members, a use-variance is by design extremely rare.
Unnecessary in Unnecessary-Hardship Means Something
The Commonwealth Court re-emphasized the high-bar associated with variances. A variance applicant cannot merely establish some hardship or economic hardship. The applicant must establish unnecessary hardship. 
In this case, the applicant argued that general changing conditions in the zoning district supported multi-family uses and thus denial meant “unnecessary hardship.” The Commonwealth Court reminded that
[m]ere economic hardship, however, “will not of itself justify a grant of a variance.” … Evidence that the property’s legally allowed use is less profitable than the property’s proposed use is not sufficient to justify a variance. [13-14, citing Marshall v. City of Philadelphia].
Neighboring uses alone do not establish unnecessary hardship. The Commonwealth Court does hint that evidence presented of significant physical characteristics of the property unique to the property might support unnecessary hardship in some cases, , or possibly significant evidence of extensive and expensive renovation (such as blighted properties) .
The Commonwealth Court thus summarized that local municipalities must recognize the extreme nature of variances and requires a higher-threshold than just hardship to establish a variance.
Modification of Prior Variances
South Broad Street also address modification of existing variances. The Court reminds:
a use variance is fundamentally a legislative determination that an otherwise nonconforming use, when approved under specific circumstances and subject to specific conditions, is entirely lawful.
If a variance exists, the property owner may seek modification of the variance by demonstrating “absence of injury to the public interest” AND:
- meeting the criteria for a new, variance (unnecessary hardship) or
- changed circumstances .
If proceeding on changed-circumstances, the applicant must establish by “substantial evidence” that conditions changed rendering the current/previous variance “no longer appropriate.” Importantly, the applicant must demonstrate the changes during the time period from when the prior variance was granted and the time of application for modification.