Understanding Setbacks

Before you break ground on a structure, there will be a long checklist of things you need to take care of to ensure a smooth building process. If you are truly prepared, one of those things will be to double-check that your new home or office does not encroach on the setback zone as established by the applicable municipality. If you are not familiar with this term and how it affects your property, we explain what you need to know below.

What Is a Setback?

A setback, commonly referred to as setback distance or setback zone, is the area a structure must be from a street, body of water, another structure, or other place in need of physical protection. For instance, if your neighborhood has a setback distance of 10 feet, your house must be at least from the street or your neighbor’s house. Municipalities will often specify different setbacks for different places of protection, though, so the setback zone from your house to the street might be different from your house to a neighbor’s fence. 

It might seem unfair, but setback zones will often cut into your overall property area. Therefore, you structure might not be able to lawfully occupy every inch of your property. Structures in any given municipality will be subject to general setback codes of the city or town and its specific zoning district.

Evolution of Setbacks

Just after the turn of the 20th century, Los Angeles and New York became the first cities to enact zoning ordinances. As with most developments in America, setback ordinances were heavily affected by the invention and widespread use of the automobile. It became obvious that setbacks needed to increase for storage of vehicles in driveways and other safety reasons. However, there has been a resurgence of smaller setbacks in some urban settings to promote more environmentally friendly cities.

Setback Exceptions

Although setback violations can be frustrating if you are planning to erect a new structure, they do exist for a reason. For that reason, it can be difficult to be granted an exception to build on a setback zone. These exceptions, called variances, are usually granted due to a unique feature abutting a property, such as a sharp riverbend. Some parts of buildings are often allowed to occupy the setback zone; they include chimneys, fire escapes, porches, and balconies.

If there is a setback violation, a number of remedies may be applied depending on which phase of construction a structure is in. They include: 

  1. An order to cease planning if it appears the finished structure will encroach the setback zone
  2. A legal decree requiring the relocation of a fence or other part of a structure
  3. Money if encroachment of another property causes physical harm or damages to legal parties

Let Us Assist You

Setback ordinances are not always cut-and-dried. It is better to retain the services of a competent legal team before you begin building your structure, but no matter what stage you are in, we can help you. Contact us now for the beginning of a mutually beneficial professional relationship.