One of the biggest mistakes new developers and homeowners make when starting a construction project is that they overlook their local zoning code. Every project should start with an understanding of zoning before designing a building or even before purchasing a property for construction. Violating zoning regulations and building unauthorized structures can result in severe consequences, some of which are as extreme as demolishing the structure at your own expense.
What is Zoning?
Zoning code or Zoning Ordinances are laws written to regulate the use and density of the buildings in a given geological location. Zoning will define building height restrictions, setbacks, building area limitations, stormwater requirements and much much more. Zoning codes are different in every city but follow some of the same basic principles.
Tip: Most places have the zoning ordinances and parcel maps available on their government website.
Some Basic Zoning Principles
Zoning Districts: Zoning districts are simply the names of the different zones within a city. The most basic zoning districts are separated by the allowed use of structures. In its most basic form, this can be described as areas of commercial, residential, industrial, and mixed-use. These zones can be further identified by varying densities in each use such as low-density residential, medium density residential and so on. Most cities define the varying density by the number of units or homes allowed on 1 acre or by a Floor Area Ratio (F.A.R.). The primary purpose is to prevent unpleasant building use combinations in the same area and control the comfort level of a given location. For example, a hazardous industrial facility next door to an elementary school would be a combination to avoid for obvious reasons.
Bulk Regulations: Another fundamental principle in almost all zoning code is Bulk Regulations. This is simply the basic regulations assigned to the different zoning districts. There is usually a chart that defines the bulk regulations per zoning district and includes restrictions such as height, setbacks, and density of buildings. After determining your district the next thing to check are these regulations for the basic information about your zone.
Zone Density: One method cities use to define a zoning district density is called Floor Area Ratio (F.A.R.) This is simply a ratio that ties the lot size to the allowable building area. F.A.R. x Area of Site = Allowed Area of Building. As an example, if the zoning states an F.A.R. of 0.50 is allowed in a given zone this means that the total area of the building or the sum of the total areas of all the buildings on that lot cannot be larger than 50% of the overall area of the lot. Other methods for defining density include building coverage and unit density. Building coverage is typically a building footprint calculation compared to the lot area. Whereas unit density defines the number of units or homes allowed per acre.
Setbacks: Setbacks are imaginary lines on your property that define where you are and are not allowed to build. This imaginary line is usually defined as a set distance from your property line and varies depending on the zoning district. The purpose of setbacks is to reduce fire hazards between buildings. Setbacks also allow for air and light to pass between structures to create a more comfortable city environment. Similar to setbacks are easements which are areas on your property where you are not allowed to build because of utilities or other necessary elements.
Conclusion: This is just a small taste of zoning code. The first step is to know the limitations the zoning will bestow upon your project for this will control its design. Whether you are thinking of adding on to your existing home or are building a new construction, it is important to first review the zoning. Some zoning is very simple while others are more complex. See our advanced zoning blog post for a more in depth look and specific nuances to watch out for.
The best way to ensure compliance with zoning is to hire a design professional. CWarch offers a low-cost feasibility study to help define the limitations of your project including, but not limited to, the zoning. Interested to know more or have specific questions about your project? Reach out to us, we are here to help.
© 2019 by Clements Wimsatt Architects PLLC