Many American cities and counties divide land within their boundaries into districts of desired uses: residential, commercial, industrial, etc.
This practice of “zoning” is intended to separate incompatible uses: you don’t have to worry about a company building an industrial plant in the middle of your quiet neighborhood. A set of bulk regulations (such as setbacks, building height, lot coverage, floor area ratio, etc.) is typically provided for each district.
Zoning classifications for each use are often described and governed by an ordinance that’s part of the law and codes of the jurisdiction. For example, the City of Atlanta Zoning Ordinance is actually in Part 16 of Part III (where the Land Development Code is recorded) in Atlanta’s Code of Ordinances. If you’re willing to do some digging, you can find the zoning ordinance for many municipalities through the free online library provided on the Municode.com website.
Just to be clear, a property is assigned its zoning classification by the municipality. You can’t assume its zoning by classifying it yourself based on the criteria.
What You Can’t See
You typically can’t see the boundaries and limits prescribed in the zoning ordinance by visiting a property. In some urban residential buildings the limits are the walls and floors though most properties are difficult if not impossible to gauge.
For example, the front setback of a property is typically not taken from the curb of the street in front of the property. It’s often taken from the edge of the right-of-way through which that street runs; and the street may not be right in the middle of the right-of-way.
Site Analysis: Determining the Potential of a Property
Other common metrics, like floor area ratio and lot coverage, must be calculated. In urban areas, it’s common to be governed by the lot coverage or floor area ratio before you’re limited by setbacks and building height.
A site analysis is necessary to determine the potential of the property: How close is the property to the limits of the zoning ordinance? It’s common to revisit and update the site analysis as a design progresses to see that the work is within the limits of the zoning ordinance.
Commissioning a Survey
When there’s no survey for a property, we typically commission a survey to find those limits we can’t see. We can then use the information to develop a site analysis that progresses with the design.
If you don’t have a survey, please don’t commission one without speaking with your architect. Some jurisdictions require grading plans and other submittals to earn a building permit. It’s worth confirming the requirements of the jurisdiction so you get the information you need in the survey.
The surveyor can’t just add information to an existing survey without locating the corners again (to establish a frame of reference). If you don’t get the information you need in the first visit, you may be paying for duplicate work.
Rezoning and Variances
In some situations, it’s possible to rezone a property. It may also be possible to get a variance that allows you to violate a specific portion of the zoning ordinance. Both of these are typically a public process. We have experience with both and suggest that you work with a professional if you think either is appropriate.
In some cases, we will investigate the existing precedents for a variance if a variance appears to be necessary for the best design solution. We prefer do that as the design develops so we’ve not bet the success of the project on the success of the variance process.
This is a complex topic so it’s worth working with an experienced professional to guide you. It’s important to have an advocate who can explain your options and represent you through the permitting, variance or rezoning process.
Zoning is also tied to future land use, infill development and other complex issues so please be sure to visit our Urban Planning page for more information. If you have questions, please try our free Ask An Architect tool or Contact us to review a particular piece of property.