Congratulations! After months of attending open houses and searching online, you’ve finally found the property of your dreams. You’ve negotiated a fair price with the seller, you have a mortgage commitment in hand, and the home inspector has given it a clean bill of health. Your patience and tenacity have paid off. Yep, this one’s a keeper!
If you’re like most people, though, it won’t really be yours until you’ve customized it a bit, right? Or maybe a lot. Perhaps you’ve fantasized about a larger kitchen, or an addition with views to the surrounding landscape. It’s an exciting moment. The possibilities are limitless!
Or are they?
Whether this is your first real estate purchase or your fifth, you may not realize that owning a property does not entitle you to make whatever changes you like. Far from it. Or maybe you have a sense that there are rules, but you don’t know what they are or where to find them, or even what questions to ask.
The fact is, there are countless laws and regulations – primarily municipal, county, and state – that dictate what you can and cannot do with “your” property.
“Fools Rush in Where Angels Fear to Tread.”
Alexander Pope, c. 1711
Constraints, in this context, are limitations on your ability to make changes to your property.
The ones most likely to affect your plans are your local zoning laws.
Constraints sometimes emerge at the intersection of local zoning laws and your property, with its unique location and features. This is especially common in older towns with a substantial number of structures built before the mid-20th century. Examples include: Princeton, Pennington, and Hopewell.
Not knowing the “lay of the land” in your community can turn a dream project into an expensive and frustrating nightmare.
Zoning laws are the most common form of land use regulation in the United States. They have been widely used since the mid-20th century. Most municipalities—the notable exception being Houston, Texas—have a zoning ordinance that codifies land development rules.
There are many.
At their core, municipalities use zoning rules to create communities that satisfy the needs and goals of their residents—and protect their interests. Some would say that they exist to maintain property values.
Zoning rules may protect important natural and historical resources or ensure that facilities that may jeopardize the health and safety of a community’s occupants are far from residential zones. They typically seek to protect citizens’ access to fresh air and natural light, not to mention their right to privacy.
Zoning laws can also help communities to establish and maintain their architectural character, manage and direct growth, encourage economic development, and change with the times. In recent years, many communities have incorporated sustainability and climate change-related goals into their ordinances.
A municipality’s zoning officer or administrative staff can automatically approve “as of right” proposals, which conform to the use and bulk regulations of their zone.
Applications that do not conform to zoning regulations may require a “variance.” A variance is a request to deviate from current zoning requirements. If granted, a variance permits a property owner to use the land in a manner not otherwise permitted by the zoning ordinance. It is not a change in the zoning law. Instead, it is a specific waiver of requirements of the zoning ordinance.
While the procedures vary from one municipality to another, a public meeting or “hearing” is usually required.
Such meetings allow residents to ask questions about a proposed project, and to publicly endorse or oppose it.
After all comments have been heard and questions asked and answered, a zoning or planning board comprised of local citizens typically votes to approve or deny an application.
Typically, variances are granted when the property owner can demonstrate that existing zoning regulations present a practical difficulty in making use of the property.
A board may vote to approve or deny a simple application in one or two hours. By contrast, a board might debate complex or controversial ones for months or even years before rendering a decision.
This is only an introduction to modern zoning laws. Zoning can regulate a wide range of other activities, including the amount of off-street parking to be included with new homes or offices; the type of landscaping or lighting that surrounds the buildings; and the type, size and brightness of outdoor signs.
By now, it should be clear how much your community’s appearance and character is shaped by its zoning laws. (A lot.) And it should be equally clear that your community has a great deal to say about what you do with “your” property.
If you are getting ready to buy a vintage (pre-WWII) home and/or are thinking about a major renovation or addition, we encourage you call us first.
Unlike most architects, who will eagerly launch into design services without carefully establishing the groundwork for the project, we offer a unique pre-design service that explores the objectives, requirements, constraints, and potential roadblock for your project. We call it the “Vision and Strategy Review” (VSR). The VSR is so valuable because it minimizes your risk of faulty design decisions. And in the long run it can save a great deal of time, money, and frustration. Please click here to learn more about the VSR.
Contact Principal Architect Doug Schotland to schedule an initial consultation. He can be reached at (609) 737-6444 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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