Which zoning district typically has greater setbacks

Visitor Question: Out of employment zones, commercial zones, and residential zones which one is most likely to have higher values for setbacks AND why?

Editors Reply: As your question indicates, this is a matter or probabilities and not certainties. Each zoning district is local to your town, city, township, or county. Yes, there is a certain amount of copying from one jurisdiction to its neighbors, often because they are using the same consultant to write the ordinance. Nonetheless, the variations between zoning ordinances are infinite.

Having said that, it is probably more frequent in traditional neighborhoods in urban settings and in older suburbs that residential setback requirements are greater. For readers who may not understand, a setback is a required minimum distance from a property line for a structure.

The thought behind the residential setback requirement is that a front yard is desirable, both from an aesthetic standpoint and a street noise standpoint. In decades past, sometimes a safety rationale also was mentioned; if children are playing in the front yard, they are less likely to run out into the street in pursuit of a ball if the front yard is at least 20 feet deep, some people would have argued.

But right away we see that this too is variable. In some city neighborhoods where homes were built before maybe 1940, the front steps or porches of homes come right up to the sidewalk.

Side and rear yard setback requirements likely are tied to how much a neighborhood is perceived as a family kind of place where kids and dogs are prevalent. Thoughts about privacy, sustainability, and even prestige also may contribute to local decisions about the setback requirements in the land use regulation.

As for setbacks in commercial areas, we are going to comment in terms of retail land uses, since commercial is too vague to even make any guesses or predictions. Again it depends on the age of the retail structure. In traditional Main Streets and downtown areas, the buildings may come right up to the sidewalk or if topography is steep, their steps might be directly adjacent to the sidewalk. Where these building patterns predominate, often the zoning ordinance continues to honor that historic design and does not require any particular setback.

In such areas, sometimes the only required setback is a setback for side yards or rear yards that adjoin a residential zoning district.

However, a newer suburban pattern of development, often sporting parking in front of the building instead of behind it, emerged in the U.S. and other countries as suburbanization became a greater force after World War II especially. In these cases the zoning ordinance is likely to continue to enforce a front yard setback of some type. The idea was that suburban shoppers would feel more comfortable entering a store from a front door that felt somewhat protected from traffic and even the sidewalk, if there is even a sidewalk.

In sum, retail setbacks too are variable and are highly dependent on the setting, historic building pattern, and even demands of chain retail stores that the jurisdiction may want to attract.

Employment zones too is a vague term. We're going to answer in two ways, one pertaining to manufacturing and one relevant to offices or office parks.

Manufacturing, whether of the dirty smoke stack or the clean fully enclosed operation, often thrives without any zoning restrictions on setbacks at all. Sometimes this provision simply reflects pre-existing reality on the ground, but at other times it was felt that industrial zones were not particularly designed to be aesthetically pleasing and therefore a setback was not relevant. In this mentality, a buffer zone from a commercial or residential zoning district might even be more common than a setback within the interior of an industrial district.

Secondly, an employment zone might mean an office area or office park. In newer suburbs, the office park buildings are likely to be set within a grassy lawn area somewhat to mimic a residential setting. A minimal front yard setback is likely, but where site plan approval is required, written standards or unwritten judgments of a planning commission or city council may require a considerable setback.

For offices not within a park, many of which would adjoin or be mixed in with retail uses, the same considerations as for retail would apply. Age and character of the district probably are the determining factors for whether a particular zoning district requires a setback, and if so, of what size.

Now that we are at the end of this necessarily general discussion, you can see that your question really cannot be answered without understanding much, much more about the particular city or town in question. But throughout, we see that the historic pattern of development, as well as local aesthetic sensibilities and land use goals, will determine setbacks.

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