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A variance refers to permission granted by the zoning authorities to allow the use of a property in a specified manner that violates the the existing zoning requirements.
In other words, an exception is granted to the land owner to make certain improvements that would not be allows under normal circumstances.
Instances of variance are often due to the property being practically unusable if it has to strictly adhere to zoning laws.
Unusable might mean it being uninhabitable or unsafe.
This is why in order to be granted approval, owners need to prove property hardship. This usually centers around the owner being unable to make reasonable use of the land one way or another.
Variances granted can be an allowed encroachment on the setback line, construct a bigger or smaller house, exceeding the allowed floor area, etc.
They can also be conditional use permits requiring certain criteria to be met for a variance to approve.
Sometimes many owners can also group together to petition for variance.