Understanding Zoning

(link to my YouTube video on the subject)

You are looking at a piece of land and imagining the possibilities. You envision something great that would double the value of this property, but question if it will fit?  One would think that the area of the lot would determine this. Unfortunately, this is only one piece of the puzzle. There are always government regulations that apply.

The regulations come in two varieties. Buildings Codes and Zoning.  Building codes don’t directly presume to limit the size and arrangement of your Buildings. However, they do dictate the manner things are to be built. Often building code regulations are based on the size and configuration of what is proposed.  

Example:  A building code like the International Building Code, (IBC) would not dictate how far from the property line your building should be. But it will mandate a level of fire proofing and limit the total areas of windows depending on how close to the property lines the wall is.  

Building codes can indirectly limit the size and configuration of your project.  You may be looking into maximizing the Square footage only to find it impractical to accomplish due to the IBC regulations. Such as requiring the structure to be made out of steel or concrete as a result of its larger size.

This is just general information and I will talk more about building codes in a later post.  

Zoning is what I am here to discuss today.  While building codes are about safety and quality of a building.  Zoning is intended to manage health, quality of life, even aesthetics of a neighborhood.  Customarily zoning’s biggest focus is on managing density. In essence attempting to control growth in order to keep local infrastructure like roads, schools and sewage from being overwhelmed.  

Zoning requirements vary from place to place.  The first step of any project should be to find out what zoning rules apply.  They come from your local municipality or county government.  It is best to call the municipality to find what government entity has jurisdiction for the zoning on the property and how to get the zoning information you need.  If it’s the weekend or you can’t get through on the phone, many municipalities and counties have this information online.  Go to their website which is arranged by department.  The name of the department may vary but what you are looking for is their zoning or planning department. Once you find the page of the correct department, find the zoning regulations (often referred to as the zoning ordinance).  Also important, you need to find a zoning map.  

The zoning map is a map of the municipality or county. It shows what places are in what zone.  Municipalities and counties will have several zones based on type of use and how dense the zoning department wants development in each zone.  They have zones for residential, industrial, agricultural to name a few common types.  Also these categories can be further subdivided by level of density like single and multi family residential zones, or intensity as in light and heavy industrial zones.  

Once you figure out what zone your property is in, look at the zoning ordinances.  Sifting the information can be overwhelming. Especially if it is from a big city with many zones and regulations.  Also, some places will have all their ordinances in one document with zoning regulations as one or two chapters that need to be isolated out.  

All zoning ordinances can vary. Typically they cover the same concepts.  Please understand that your community might use different verbiage, and variations on the concepts.  Also, as I follow up with examples, the formulas and numbers will vary from place to place.    

To start with you need to look at how the property will be used.  Is it for residences, business, or industrial?  Zoning can get more specific.  Like single family, two family (i.e. duplex) and multiple family (i.e. townhomes and apartments) zones. It can even be so exacting as to include and exclude specific types of businesses.  Also Municipalities are implementing mixed use zones where a building may have or even be required to have both shops and residences.   

Related to use regulations are density regulations, where some uses are based on the size of the lot.  This is most often expressed as a dwelling unit per a specific area.  As in one dwelling unit per 5,000 square feet.  In that case an 8,000 square foot lot might be in a multi-family Zone but by the regulation be limited to a single family home. 

Parking is another major concept that zoning will dictate requirements.  Ordinances dictate the minimum size of parking spaces, and how many spaces per apartment.  It can even get as specific by having different parking requirements for 2 bedroom apartments versus one bedroom and studio apartment.  For commercial uses, parking might be based on an estimated number of occupants which is calculated by the size and function of the spaces.  These occupant calculations are taken from the building code that your municipality uses like the IBC or may have something indicated in the zoning ordinance itself.

Lot Coverage and Floor Area Ratio are limits on the building area based on the size of the property. Often expressed in the form of a percentage.  Floor Area Ratio (also known as FAR) is the sum of the floor areas of each level divided by the lot area. Many ordinances will exclude basement and garages, so you will need to confirm the specific requirements from the zoning ordinance.  

Lot Coverage is similar to FAR but will count the footprint of certain elements on the lot.  Like FAR each ordinance differs on what to include.  For example: A lot coverage based on the area of the building footprint (regardless of the number of floors) is the most common type of lot coverage regulation.  Towns may even have several lot coverage rules. Where areas of pavement, plantings and parking are regulated in lot coverage rules.  These pavement rules are enacted to reduce impervious surfaces. Thus allowing rain water to be absorbed by the earth, helping reduce flow into municipal stormwater systems during heavy rains.  

Setbacks are minimum distances built elements can be from a specified property line.  Setback ordinances will routinely have specific setbacks from the front property line, side property lines and the rear property line.  Labeling what property line is front, side, or rear can get vague when dealing with corner lots and irregularly shaped ones.   You may need to read deeper into the zoning code, or even talk directly with the zoning official to determine how to deal with these types of properties.  

Setback rules can have different requirements depending on the elements. Such as the main building may have one set of setbacks while elements like garages, porches, decks, parking spaces, and sheds, have different requirements.  

The inverse of setbacks are built-to requirements.  These rules will designate areas, relative to the property lines that you must build in.  This is most common in urban areas where a certain streetscape character is wanted.  

Height regulations might seem straight forward at a glance but can get confusing as you get into the minutia of the rules.  These ordinances limit the height and number of stories you can build.  Some height regulations vary depending on distance from the property line. Elements further from the property line being allowed to be taller than those closer.  These variable height rules were first enacted to prevent buildings from casting large shadows on streets and adjacent properties. 

Furthermore rules on measuring height can get difficult. In that you need to determine from which two points height is defined. Some codes set the bottom point of a height measurement. Locating it at the lowest part of the ground level along the perimeter of the proposed building.  Other codes take an average ground level height. Using the four corners of the building to determine the average. I have even seen towns that use average curb height for the low point measurement.  The specific measurement instructions for low point, from a zoning ordinance can have a big impact on the resulting building height, especially on properties with steep slopes.  

To determine the height point of a height calculation a zoning code might name the rooftop,  parapet wall, or the highest part of any built element as the high point.  Some regulations exclude certain elements such as elevator towers, chimneys and roof top equipment.  On sloped residential roofs the highest roof ridge is often considered the high point.  It is also not uncommon for a height to be set at a point halfway between roof eaves and the highest roof ridge.  This is done to limit penalties on designing a steep roof slope.  Which has the added benefit of superior functionality and presenting the viewer with a more aesthetically pleasant appearance. 

Having a good understanding of the zoning regulations that apply to a property you are considering, will help you make an informed decision whether to buy or not.  If it is a lot you already own, this information should point you in the best direction for developing it.  With a little bit of knowledge you can avoid wasting your time or worse, buying an undevelopable piece of land.

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