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Thread: Need help interpreting re: front yard setbacks

  1. #1
    Cyburbian SW MI Planner's avatar
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    Need help interpreting re: front yard setbacks

    This is how our residential front yard setback ordinance reads:
    ****
    (b) Front Yard. There shall be a front yard of not less than thirty feet, provided that if forty percent or more of all the frontage on one side of a street between two intersecting streets has been developed with one-family houses, the front yard so established shall prevail. This section shall not be construed to permit any new house to be closer than twenty feet to the front lot line, or require a front yard setback of more than fifty feet from the front lot line.
    ****
    OK, so in a lot of the older neighborhoods with houses at 20 feet, this means that the established front yard setback (20') will be what we go by, as opposed to the 30 feet.

    What about in a new neighborhood where all of the houses are setback 40 feet. Does this mean any new infill (or a front addition) has to be set back at 40 feet, or can it go with a 30 ft setback?

    I'm thinking literal interpretation says yes it has to be at the 40 foot, but criminy, this stuff tends to make you go in circles if you look at it too often.

  2. #2
    Cyburbian nerudite's avatar
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    I think your interpretation is correct, although I would think that intent of the language was for infill development in mature neighbourhoods.

  3. #3
    Cyburbian SGB's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by SW MI Planner

    What about in a new neighborhood where all of the houses are setback 40 feet. Does this mean any new infill (or a front addition) has to be set back at 40 feet, or can it go with a 30 ft setback?

    I'm thinking literal interpretation says yes it has to be at the 40 foot....
    I think you are right: the prevailing 40' setback applies.
    All these years the people said he’s actin’ like a kid.
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  4. #4
    Forums Administrator & Gallery Moderator NHPlanner's avatar
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    Depends. Is the ordinance permissive or restrictive? If permissive, the lesser setback of 30' would work. If restrictive, the 40' distance. If it's like our ordinance, and is a mix of permissive and restrictive, ask the Zoning Officer/Administrator or the municipal attorney.
    "Growth is inevitable and desirable, but destruction of community character is not. The question is not whether your part of the world is going to change. The question is how." -- Edward T. McMahon, The Conservation Fund

  5. #5
    Cyburbian SW MI Planner's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by NHPlanner
    Depends. Is the ordinance permissive or restrictive? If permissive, the lesser setback of 30' would work. If restrictive, the 40' distance. If it's like our ordinance, and is a mix of permissive and restrictive, ask the Zoning Officer/Administrator or the municipal attorney.
    It's both, and that's me! I'm taking it to the ZBA for their interpretation. I agree with Nerudite that the intent was for the older neighborhoods.

  6. #6
    Cyburbian boiker's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by SW MI Planner
    It's both, and that's me! I'm taking it to the ZBA for their interpretation. I agree with Nerudite that the intent was for the older neighborhoods.
    The intent may have been for older neighborhoods.. but that intent was to create a consistant yard through the neighborhood. I think that 40 ft prevails. Otherwise, you may have a bunch of 40 ft setback homeowners raising hell.
    Dude, I'm cheesing so hard right now.

  7. #7
    Cyburbian cmd uw's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by nerudite
    I think your interpretation is correct, although I would think that intent of the language was for infill development in mature neighbourhoods.
    This is only valid if the specific zone is only utilized in mature neighbourhoods. If similar language is utilized in other zones, specifically zones in newer suburban neighbourhoods, that's where you'd have some issues.
    "First we shape our buildings, and then our buildings start shaping us." - Sir Winston Churchill

  8. #8
    Cyburbian mike gurnee's avatar
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    The 40 percent rule is a beautiful construct for infill development. I believe Fred Bair first published the idea in the late 70s. Our provision is wordy, but more precise:

    Where lots comprising forty percent or more of the frontage in any given block are already developed as legal nonconforming situations with buildings whose front yards are less that the minimum required front setback as specified by this ordinance...

  9. #9

    front yard setback...why?

    Other than establishing a neighborhood standard for compatibility sakes...why do we have front setbacks or required front yards? I ask this because here we are attempting to tweek our code and ridding ourselves of the front yard setback is on the list. It was already established that if this desire to smoke the requirement prevails that we would obviously have a matching provision quite like the 40% rule although ours reads so that you must or can take the average of the prevailing setbacks on either side of you. If you are on the corner you take the average of the requirement and the setback on the other side.

    I tend to be a purist and desire compact, walkable neighborhoods where the structures provide good form to the street so I'm in favor of ridding the front yard setback. I'm looking for a practical reason for having such standard applied to the entire city.

    Thanks from Red Sox fan in T-town.

  10. #10
    Cyburbian Streck's avatar
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    I concur that the 40 foot setback is correct.

    I would wonder, however, why a 50% rule (majority) rather than a 40% rule shouldn't apply.

    In a related matter, our community was named one of the 100 Best Places to Live in America by Money Magazine. It is very satisfying to know that we have been able to maintain our Front Yard Setbacks and landscaped neighborhood settings. Apparently others appreciate that too. Our community has a reputation for outstanding planning. Thanks to the Planning profession that got us started off right. The adjacent small communities and our big city neighbor did not make the list. I would encourage you to maintain your setbacks. They were created years ago for good reason, but of course, we certainly understand development pressures. Good luck.

  11. #11
    Cyburbian donk's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by tulsa
    Other than establishing a neighborhood standard for compatibility sakes...why do we have front setbacks or required front yards?
    .
    A few reasons I can think of: future road widenings, installation and maintenance of services, a place to pile snow, privacy
    Too lazy to beat myself up for being to lazy to beat myself up for being too lazy to... well you get the point....

  12. #12
    Cyburbian Streck's avatar
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    Originally posted by tulsa:
    "Other than establishing a neighborhood standard for compatibility sakes...why do we have front setbacks or required front yards? "

    Sunshine, light, air, vegetation, landscaping, room for upper storey canopy of good size mature trees and their roots, shade provided by trees, habitat and food sources for urban birds and animals, a natural corridor within an urban setting, visual relief from asphalt-stone-brick-concrete-steel-wood man-made construction, traffic noise reduction, urban heat-sink mediation, keeping impervious surfaces in balance with organic ones, allowing for gradual stormwater run-off, allowing recharging of ground water sources, psychological peace of mind of a buffer space, sense of identity with nature at dwelling or work, disipation and absorbtion of internal combustion engine off-gassing, natural cleaning of urban air, recycling carbon dioxide and oxygen in urban centers, allowing free flow of air currents rather than wind finding its own way by force between massive structural elements close to the street in man-made cityscape canyons, an opportunity to experience in some degree "living on the land" and reconnecting with nature, more play space if traffic can be minimized, better vision of intersecting traffic at corners, aesthetics of architectural settings, avoidance of the hard-sterile-monotonous city environments due to the lack of proper planning of the past, and a place to meet neighbors.

    And lastly, because if cities would not require them, developers would not provide them.

    I am sure I missed a few reasons.

  13. #13
    OK. I am really trying to understand this. In certain residential neighborhoods I might be able to understand why you would want larger front yards of 25 ft. or so but applying that along with say 50' commercial setbacks throughout the city doesn't make much sense to me.

    I don't think we require 25' residential setbacks to plan for future roadway expansion, not with a 50' ROW to begin with. Same with most of our commercial streets; they have 100' ROW's, that on top of a 50' setback on either side seems rediculous to me. If we have to jump into those setbacks for road widenings I don't really want to know what we are planning for. As for the snow, I'm in Tulsa. If we get more than a foot of snow per year it's been a heavy winter and I've lived in Boston you just use up to side of the street for temp. snow storage. Utilities have gone in the ROW before and should still be there.


    As far a nature goes, I don't think a narrow front setback is going throw nature out of balance. I've been in many a neighborhood where trees dominated the streetscape although houses were placed right up to the street. Run-off can be accommodated around narrow setbacks. If you plan a dense neighborhood around parks and ensure that plenty of trees are planted along the sidewalk I think it is quite pleasant. Further, narrow setbacks provide the property owner a larger envelope and the buildings can provide the street, neighborhood and city order and definition. I'm not sure that the lack of a front yard will disable an ability to meet neighbors. Maybe I need to clarify my vision, when I think of enabling narrow setbaks I'm thinking of neighborhoods such as the Back Bay in Boston or Brooklyn Heights where buildings don't overwhelm the street with shadows and imposing edefices. I'm thinking of typical res. structures of 2-3 stories in height; proportionally. I'm also thinking about planning cities around people not cars. I read a statement the other days that says 'If you plan for cars and traffic, you get cars and traffic' I think reestablishing definitive streetscapes helps calm traffic and creates a more stimulating walking environment as well as helps connect the various elements of a city or neighborhood. I can't think of a practical reason for requiring setbacks beyond establishing a neighborhood character. I have been to way too many urban neighborhoods and cities where 0' setbacks are thenorm and they are amazingly stimulating yet calming and I can't think of one reason as to why they don't function well or why they might be a bad idea.

    Sorry, I wasn't really setting that question up so I could just jump on the first responder.

    I just seems to me that most, if not all, of those goals can be accomplished with narrow front setbacks. I understand there is a mentality out there that believes that setbacks are provisions for future road widening but with our ROW's surely we don't need the extra room and like I said if that's the case I need to get out of Autoworld.
    Last edited by NHPlanner; 15 Aug 2005 at 9:34 AM. Reason: double reply

  14. #14
    Cyburbian mike gurnee's avatar
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    Many of us have worked to reduce the required front setbacks.

  15. #15
    Cyburbian Streck's avatar
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    Remember, zoning codes were originally devised by people in residential settings to keep city density mentality from crowding out quality-of-life aspects in the interest of maximum profit as the city expanded into its surroundings. It was not the other way around.

    Once lost, you will never regain them.

    Is it better to see your young children playing in your own yard while in your own house, or have the inconvenience of having to walk a block or more to find grass and trees in a "communal" lot?

    And, ah, the feeling of coming "home," instead of coming "building."

    Yes, some cities are trying to control traffic problems by crowding housing together. Those cities have already lost control of their density, which is manifested in their traffic problems. That same mentality is trying to pack even more people into a given space! This makes sense?

    Then those same cities spend millions trying to upgrade their infrastructure capacity. What happened to Planning (density control)?

    Good luck to your fellow citizens that trust you as Planners to do the right thing.

  16. #16
    Chairman of the bored Maister's avatar
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    If you feel uncomfortable and think that any decision you make on this matter will have lasting ramifications you could always ask the zoning board for an administrative interpretation and put it on them.
    People will miss that it once meant something to be Southern or Midwestern. It doesn't mean much now, except for the climate. The question, “Where are you from?” doesn't lead to anything odd or interesting. They live somewhere near a Gap store, and what else do you need to know? - Garrison Keillor

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