What is the size of the house I could build on my lot?

Posted on
July 30, 2021

In some state zoning enabling acts the power to regulate density is specifically delegated, and a great number of ordinances state directly the number of families per acre to be permitted in the various residential districts. More common, however, are the ordinances which regulate density indirectly through provisions such as (1) type of structure; (2) lot dimensions, frontage, depth, yards; and (3) minimum lot area per family.

The justification for regulating density is similar to that for the regulation of height and coverage. Indirectly, the control of density may insure adequate light and air, may eliminate congestion with its attendant fire and traffic hazards, and may contribute to the creation of a neighborhood of pleasing homogeneity. A more positive reason for controlling density is that such control permits adequate planning of community facilities and utilities on the basis of the number of families per acre. Where density is regulated, it is often more possible to predict the future requirements for school facilities, for sewer and water system capacities, and for the many other facilities affected by population density.

Although the right to control density is securely held and is seldom questioned, certain standards of density have been questioned. How large a minimum lot area per family may a community require and still have its zoning ordinance sustained as reasonable by the courts? Bassett, in the last revision of his book, Zoning, published in 1940, states that density may be regulated by specifying the allowable number of families per acre of land.

"No prospect of trouble arises in reducing the allowable number to three or four families per acre. It is not difficult to show the court that such a regulation has a substantial relation to fire risk, light and sunlight, circulation of air, annoyance from noise, and danger of contagion. The substantial relation ceases, however, when unnecessarily large building plots are required. The question sometimes arises whether these density regulations can be used to preserve the surroundings of large estates by preventing the building of nearby houses on comparatively small tots. For instance, a regulation requiring two acres for each family might be a protection to surrounding large estates, but in case of a law suit, could the municipality show that a house for one family on two acres of land contributed to the safety and health of the community to a greater degree than such a house on one acre of land? Three families to the acre is safe. Beyond that is doubtful. Some point still beyond that is unlawful for the reason that there is no substantial relation between the regulation and the health and safety of the community." (italics ours)*

Despite this view expressed by one of the leading authorities in zoning, the courts have upheld regulations of densities lower than three families per acre. Courts in various states have upheld zoning regulations requiring minimum lot areas per family of one, two, and even three acres. Since the distinction between welfare and specious zoning is often hard to draw, a discussion of the relatively few court cases in which minimum lot size requirements of one-half acre or more have been upheld may reveal some basis for the distinction.

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