June 17, 2009

The Setback Setback

Once we had determined to move ahead with the bathroom addition, we contacted Jud, our contractor so that we could get on his schedule and wrap up the project "quickly." Having never had to deal with the town before, we assumed that permits would be a relatively painless process. After all, our house is quite modest by the standards of our area, one of the McMansion capitals of the United States, and we were increasing the footprint of the house only by a small amount. What problem could we possible have?

To build our proposed addition, we were required to comply not only with building regulations, but also with zoning guidelines. This is a good thing. Fairfield County, Connecticut, where we live, is famous for massive homes planted on postage sized lots. In many cases, these monstrosities were built after tearing down perfectly functional, often beautiful and sometimes historic residences that had previously occupied the land. Thus, we understand as well as anyone that growth needs to be controlled, and that buildings should be in keeping with the existing community norms in terms of style and size. We were acutely aware of this in our proposal, adding only modestly to the size of the house, and going to great lengths (and cost) to design an addition that was in keeping with the historic nature of our home and the surrounding neighborhood. As a result, I expected that we would breeze through the permit process, with nothing more challenging than the associated fees and the time spent negotiating City Hall. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

Where we ran into trouble is with our town's setback regulation. For those of you who are lucky enough not to have ever heard the term, the setback is the distance from the front of the property line past which one is not permitted to build. The intent is to build a buffer so that buildings do not loom over the street - not a bad thing. In our case, there was a 40 foot setback regulation, meaning that construction was not permitted within 40 feet of the front property line.

Our challenge was that in the 18th century, homes tended to be built fairly close to the road, even in rural areas. As our survey revealed, about two-thirds of the space in our house is located within 40 feet of the property line.

While we understood the issue, our assumption was that we would have no trouble obtaining a variance to this requirement. As our proposed addition was located significantly behind the front of our house, we would not be encroaching on the property line any more than the house already did. Moreover, as our home was built 200 years before the regulation even existed, we assumed that there would be some sort of grandfather clause that would allow us to proceed. Wrong again.

Upon the initial submission of our application for a variance to the Planning and Zoning (P&Z) department, we were told that our addition was "never going to happen". Even worse, the individual to whom our proposal was assigned seemed to take significant joy in turning us down. We were informed that we had many other alternatives that would for putting the addition in a conforming location behind the setback line, and that, accordingly we should not even bother to appeal to the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA), because the P&Z representative would do everything in his power to block the addition. Not good.

Naively, my mind was blown by how this was playing out. We were two young, relatively affluent tax payers, who moved to a town notorious for less than stellar schools and services, and we were prepared to make a large investment that would pretty much ensure that we would stay in the house and town for a long, long time to come. In addition, the addition that we proposed would make the house habitable for a modern family, which was not the case when we moved in. Our intention was to ensure that our home would endure for another 200 years, and not be bulldozed by a future owner who valued the land and modern amenities more than the historic value of the property. This was a win-win situation, and our P&Z friend made it clear that we would be better off demolishing the 18th century structure and building anew. Arrgh. Bureaucracy and stupidity rear their ugly heads.

Undeterred by the feedback we received on our rejected application, we filed for a hearing with the ZBA. This was a big deal. In addition to meaning a lengthy delay (months and months due to a backlog of cases) to get an appeal hearing slot at the monthly ZBA meeting, it required detailed architectural drawings ($$), a lawyer ($$), and a massive investment of time and energy as I prepared our case. We needed to inform our neighbors of our proposal (certified letters to everyone!), get neighbors and preservation experts to write letters and speak on our behalf, review legal precedent with our lawyer, etc., etc.

I spent countless hours completing paperwork for the appeal application - an exercise in cutting and pasting to make everything fit on the forms. And this was old school, second grade-style cutting and pasting involving scissors and Elmer's products, not modern Microsoft cutting and pasting. Unbearable.

I also spent a lot of time familiarizing myself with the Secretary of the Interior's Standards for Rehabilitation, which are the federally designed guidelines that are widely accepted as the benchmark for properly restoring or making changes to historic properties.

The major hurdle that we would have to overcome with the ZBA was P&Z's insistence that there were viable alternatives to our proposal. Our P&Z friend was only too happy to enumerate his grand alternative. His suggestion was that we locate a bathroom addition off the back of our house. In effect, he was suggesting that it was reasonable that the primary bathroom in the house require residents to enter the living room, go through a hallway, into the dining room, up a flight of stairs (to be located somewhere in our already very, very small dining room) into a new mater bathroom that was somehow magically suspended over the dining room (an early 19th century addition that could never handle the load of a second floor). Wow. Why didn't we think of that.

In total, we spent almost an entire year navigating this process, from the point of deciding to do the addition to the point of our Zoning Board of Appeals hearing.

Finally, we had our time in front of the ZBA. The P&Z representative perfunctorily reviewed our application for the board and indicated that there were clear alternatives to our proposal, and thus recommended that we be turned down. By this time, I was madder than hell, and not going to take it anymore. When our turn came, I walked the board through our proposal, why it was the only viable option, and why the alternative presented by P&Z was not only non-sensical, but also clearly contravened federally recommended guidelines for preserving and modifying historic structures such as out house. We then had supporting testimony from our neighbors, and from a representative of the Norwalk Preservation Trust. I then produced 20 sacks of mail, all addressed to Santa Claus. OK, everything happened but the last part.

The ZBA had many, many questions, but by this time I was pretty much in a fugue state of some sort, and was able to respond to their issues without any trouble.

I should take this opportunity to mention one funny thing. When we arrived at the meeting, we found that we would be the last case of the evening. We were all starving. Jenny, who despite being tiny, eats more food than anyone else I know, insisted that she could run out, pick up food and be back long before our turn came. Of course, the food took longer than expected to procure, the cases before us went fairly quickly, and Jenny didn't make it back until we were deep into our case. I might have been mad if we had lost.

Anyway, the ZBA cleared the room, deliberated for 10 minutes, and then brought us back in to unanimously approve our variance. Suck it, anonymous P&Z official!

Can you tell that the whole process still gets me angry?

So, in the end, we got our addition, as proposed. Rationality prevails!!


  1. Hooray for rationality! My city (Oakland, CA) was very good about the permits thing, though I did have to go through a design review first. That was triggered by a 350 sq. ft. addition, not because of the absolute size, but because the percentage was over 25% of the existing house so the design review was automatic.

  2. Glad to hear you won! I'm also annoyed to hear that you were treated this way by a planning and zoning person. I happen to sit for a local planning board and it drives me nuts to hear things like this. I applaud your efforts to get your project approved and I hope your story helps others with similar projects. I hope your addition goes better!


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