How to Know Zoning Ordinances and Building Codes

Every community has zoning ordinances and building codes to protect standards of health, safety, and land use. Any addition to your house must comply with these standards. Compliance is monitored in two ways: your building plans must be approved by official before you can begin work, and the work in progress will be inspected periodically.

If you hire an architect or building designer to design your addition and a general contractor to build it, you may never have to come in contact with the building inspector or the planning commission – except, perhaps, to make some inquiries in the preliminary planning stages. The professionals working for you will take care of satisfying all zoning and code requirements and getting all necessary permits and inspections. If you do all the work yourself, of course, you will need to deal directly with building department and the planning office.

Zoning Ordinances How to Know Zoning Ordinances and Building Codes

Yet even if you plan to have everything done by professionals, familiarizing yourself with zoning restrictions and building codes can help you in the early planning stages, before you call in the architect or contractor. If you take rough plans to a building inspector you can learn whether they violate ordinances or codes, and if they do, you will probably get some suggestions about how to bring them into conformity.

Zoning ordinances regulate land use. Designed to regulate community land use, zoning ordinances may affect your proposed addition. In general, they separate commercial, industrial, and residential areas, establishing boundaries to prevent business from migrating into residential neighborhoods. Zoning ordinances regulate land use within each area, too. Regulations apply largely to the exterior and location of structures, but they also apply to the way the property is used, such as for business or rental purposes. Sections of the zoning ordinances pertaining to residential zones regulate the following:

  • Occupancy – the number of persons unrelated by blood or marriage who may live in a dwelling.
  • Commercial use – businesses such as garages, stores, breeding kennels, and commercial stables are banned, but some professional offices may be allowed.
  • Height of buildings.
  • Distances between structure and property lines.
  • Percentage of lot covered by structure.
  • Parking requirements.
  • Architectural amenities.

Your addition and zoning ordinances: Here are several questions relating to zoning ordinances that you should consider when planning your addition:

  • Will the house with the addition occupy a greater percentage of the lot than is permitted under the ordinance (usually 50 percent, but sometimes as little as 25 percent).
  • Will the boundary wall of the addition come closer to the side lot boundary than the permitted distance (typically 5 fees)?
  • If the addition involves adding a second story, will it extend the roof crest above the height limit for the zone?
  • Are you required to have covered, off-street parking? If you convert your garage to living quarters, will you have enough room on your lot to accommodate the displaced cars?
  • Will an addition to the front of the house come too close to the street-side property line? (one of the most common miscalculations homeowners make is to consider the front sidewalk as the street boundary of their property. In many communities the front property line is actually a few feet back from the sidewalk. Before you launch a project that involves adding on to the front of the house, check your plot plan – available at the tax assessor’s office – to find out just where your street-side boundary actually runs)

Obtaining a zoning variance: If your proposed addition violates the zoning ordinance, what can you do? You may have a good reason for wishing to deviate from zoning requirements. Your house may have built at a time when 3 feet was the commonly accepted minimum distance between house and side boundary. Your subdivision may have been re-plotted after the house was built, making your lot smaller now than it was originally, so that even the most modest addition may exceed the minimum area requirements – yet your family has outgrown the house and you don’t want to move. In short, you may have compelling reason for deviating from the zoning laws.

If you do, your first step is to apply for a variance. (If a professional is designing your addition, he or she will work with you throughout the variance process.) you might be granted a variance if you can prove that strict application of the rules would result in “practical difficulties or undue hardship.” (It’s always good, by the way, to couch your variance request in phrases used in the part of the ordinance that describes variances – phrases such as “undue hardships.”) The procedure for obtaining a variance involves several steps:

  • Fill in an application for a variance. The form is available from the building department or zoning office; a filing fee is usually required.
  • If the variance you request is a minor one – involving, say, only a few inches deviation – you may get an “administrative variance.” If the variance involves substantial change, it will probably be reviewed by a special panel of experts.
  • Your petition will be reviewed in a public hearing. Any decision, whether it is in your favor or not, can be appealed within a given number of days.
  • You can appeal an unfavorable decision to the appropriate legislative body – city council, board of supervisors, or whatever – for a public hearing on the issue.
  • Appeal of the appeal is a possibility – but a remote one. It’s a matter for the courts and can cost a lot of time and money.
  • An approved variance is usually valid for 1 year. If you haven’t completed the addition with that time, you must reapply. However, building inspectors can certify that work is in progress and extend the deadline.

Building codes are concerned principally with construction practices – with structural design and strength and durability of building materials. The codes state what you can and cannot do in erecting a structure. For example, codes regulate the square footage of bedrooms, the area of windows in habitable rooms, and similar matters. In addition, they regulate specifications for foundations, framing, electrical wiring, and plumbing. Properly enforced, building codes ensure that steel is actually inside the foundation that spans are within limits so floors won’t sag, that walls are properly braced and nailed, and so on. Usually you can obtain excerpts of the regulations that apply to your particular situation from the building department at city hall at little or no cost.

Zoning Ordinances 5 How to Know Zoning Ordinances and Building Codes

In some situations, particularly if you’re adding on to an older home, strict application of the building code could require you to bring the entire house up to the present code. This is almost always the case if the cost of the addition totals more than 50 percent of the present market value of the house, excluding the lot.

If a proposed addition doesn’t conform to the building code, it may still be approved. The head of the building department has the authority to permit suitable alternatives, provided they do not weaken the structure, endanger the safety or security of the occupants, or violate the property rights of neighbors.

In some instances your proposed addition might require review by an architectural review board. This normally happens only when the design is so unusual that the buli8ding inspector or other official feels that it warrants closer scrutiny by a body of professionals.


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