Greenwich Planning & Zoning Hearing on FAR (Floor Area Ratio)

Next Tuesday, November 15th at 7 PM at Town Hall amendments to Planning and Zoning’s floor area ratio calculations are scheduled to be heard. Now this is an esoteric subject that normally only architects, builders and planning and zoning commission members are interested in, but the proposed changes will be very helpful for a lot of homeowners in Greenwich.

Greenwich adopted the floor area ratio in 1989 to make sure that huge houses weren’t built on tiny lots. As you can see each zone has its own ratio. For example, the R-20 zone has a minimum lot size of 20,000 sf which is .46 acres. The floor area ratio for that zone is .225 which means when you apply that to a 20,000 square-foot lot you can build a house of 4500 sf.

Zone Min Acres Lot s.f. FAR Max Size
R-6 0.17 7,500 0.55 4,125
R-7 0.17 7,500 0.35 2,625
R-12 0.28 12,000 0.315 3,780
R-20 0.46 20,000 0.225 4,500
RA-1 1 43,560 0.135 5,881
RA-2 2 87,120 0.09 7,841
RA-4 4 174,240 0.0625 10,890

 

Now that concept seems fairly simple and straightforward. However, since 1989 a combination of creative architects and interpretations and amendments by planning and zoning have led to a very complex set of interpretations and some unforeseen consequences when the regs were originally passed.

Two of the principal issues that are being addressed in the public hearing are attics and basements. The concept is that if the space is underground or if the attic is unfinished then the space doesn’t count as floor area for the calculation. During the early digits many architects were pushing houses to the absolute limit and came up with ways to get additional square footage that wouldn’t be counted on the floor area ratio.

Basements were always problematic as Greenwich has a lot of hills. What might be a basement from the front of the house might be the first floor from the back of the house the so-called walkout basement. If it was a walkout basement, then it was counted in the floor area calculation. You could have two identical houses with significantly different floor areas. The house on the hill had three floors counted for square footage whereas the identical house next-door that was on a flat lot only had the two floors above ground counted. (This a principal reason why you should always take the square footage from the tax card with a grain of salt. It may or may not include the basement and “attic” space.)

One option that was initially within the regs was to build up the lot so that the ground level, the grade plane, put the lowest level underground  hence was not counted in the FAR.  This strategy is called wedding caking since there may be several tiers created from the property edge to the house.

To combat this tactic new regulations were adopted. The Greenwich Association of Realtors is proposing rationalizing these rules so that you could have 5 feet of basement showing and still be excluded from the FAR.

With attics, there was a different issue. Homeowners and builders would get a C.O. for the property with a square footage on the living floors that was very close to the absolute maximum allowed for that zone. The attic would be left unfinished and hence wouldn’t be counted in the FAR. Some people would subsequently finish off the attic with additional living space so that the house now exceeded the floor area ratio. To combat this after-the-fact, and unauthorized expansion, planning and zoning required that trusses be interlaced in the attic leaving a rat’s nest of wooden beams that made it impossibly difficult to use the attic even for storage.

The GA R is rightly concerned that these areas are fire house hazards and very difficult to move around in to fight a fire. However, to me the real issue is that the use of someone’s attic should be irrelevant if no one from the outside can see inside the attic. Why should we be controlling what people can do with their private homes when it has no effect on the neighborhood.

The overall problem however and these rules just highlight two of the poster children for this are that we now have layer upon layer regulations to control development.

Zone GAR Lot Coverage Lot Cov. SF Lot Cov. Ac.
R-6 35% 65% 4,875 0.11
R-7 50% 50% 3,750 0.09
R-12 55% 45% 5,400 0.12
R-20 62% 38% 7,600 0.17
RA-1 72% 28% 12,197 0.28
RA-2 78% 22% 19,166 0.44
RA-4 84% 16% 27,878

0.64

 

The latest one was the green area requirement which even if your house is conforming can prevent you from using the outside space. The ratios for the green area requirement vary from a 35% green area required in the smallest zone to 84% of the lot having to be left with natural surfaces in the four-acre zone. This means that only 16% of the lot can be covered in the 4-acre zone or only 0.64 acres of the 4 acres.

In addition to these regulations that touch every homeowner, we have flood plain regulations, we have a new drainage manual that substantially restricts lot use and can raise the cost of the development. These new regulations are in addition to setback and height limitations, house location regulations and lot frontage regulations.

Now some people think that real estate agents are pro-development and some even believe that we’d like to see all regulations eliminated. I don’t know any agents that believe that. Much of the what makes Greenwich houses so valuable is the protection of adjacent properties that these regulations provide. So there need to be controls. However, I know many agents and homeowners who have had to deal with our land use agencies who believe the regulations need an overhaul to be made simpler and less expensive to comply with. This proposal is a start.

 

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