Things to Consider when Looking for Land to Build On: Part III – Overlay Districts & Zoning

Building in Austin

City of Austin Skyline

This is the third installment in our series of blog posts about “Things to Consider when Looking for Land to Build On”  The first installment looked at site setbacks, the second installment focused on the City of Austin’s McMansion ordinance and FAR requirements, this final installment will touch on Overlay Districts and Zoning.

Part III: Overlay Districts and Zoning

In the broadest definition zoning is basically how the city designates what can be built on a lot. In an attempt to maintain a vision for how the city develops neighborhood by neighborhood the city of Austin has adopted a master plan.  The master plan guides development in a way that works best for the city as a whole.  While the master plan is not without its problems it ensures that our communities  maintain relationships and develop towards a shared vision. This may seem like a no-brainer but many city’s don’t have master plans. Folks in Houston have opted not to have a master plan which means you can build anything anywhere for the most part.  While this allows for the ultimate freedom in land ownership, it doesn’t really protect your investment either and you can end up having things like a 30 story tower in a single family residence neighborhood that in turn is separated from amenities that might have otherwise been in walking distance such as shopping and restaurants.

McMansion and Neighborhood boundaries

McMansion and Neighborhood Districts

The city has an interactive web viewer that has numerous zoning maps that can be viewed on their website here. This is a great place to start to make sure you can do what you think you can do on a lot. The “development web map” is probably the most useful for our purposes now. This interactive web map is loaded with information.  In order to discover what a lot is zoned you will need to zoom into the area and turn on the “Land Use” option in the menu.  This will give you an image that shows you all the designations.  This map will also give you the “Neighborhood Planning” areas.  These are the neighborhood overlay districts.  The first thing you will want to do is find out what the “Land Use” designation is and then find out what the neighborhood overlay is.  Most neighborhoods in the City of Austin have adopted their own plans that go into more detail and specificity based on unique conditions present in their area.  If adopted by the City these overlay districts will trump the city’s master plan. This is called a “Combining District”.

Building in AustinAs with most things it is helpful to have an example.  If you are building in Hyde Park and your lot is zoned SF-2 (Single Family-2) then you can build a residence on it and based on the City’s zoning requirements this area must follow the McMansion ordinance (discussed in the previous series post) however the Hyde Park area has an overlay combining district that has been adopted by the City.  These requirements will take precedence over the cities more general requirements.  A specific example would be as follows: The city of Austin Single Family Residential zoning has a 35′ height limit that your home can not exceed. If that property is in an area that has adopted the McMansion ordinance then the maximum building height is 32′. The Hyde Park District however has adopted a maximum height limit of 30′.  The Hyde Park District Neighborhood overlay would trump the city’s zoning and other overlays. (Is your head spinning yet? call us we do it all the time 🙂  These overlays are not necessarily always more strict  either.  For instance City Zoning for a Single Family lot requires that you have 5′ side yard setback however in the Hyde Park Neighborhood they allow you to extend into that set back with a 2′ overhang.  This extension is not permitted in other areas of the City.

Building in Hyde ParkTo summarize our series here is a quick list of things to keep in mind when considering to purchase land to build on:

  1. Look up the zoning and check to see if there is an active neighborhood plan
  2. Understand what setbacks apply to your property these can include zoning setbacks, utility setbacks and tree setbacks.
  3. Make sure you are permitted to build “as much house” as you need – check the impervious coverage requirements, FAR and other building size requirements determined by the size of your lot.
  4. When all else fails or you have questions give us a call!  We work with clients every day to make this process much easier to understand.  See more about working with an architect here.
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About clarkrichardson

Clark Richardson Architects practice design with the goal of creating contemporary architectural experiences through form, sustainability and detail. We specialize in green building, sustainable residential and commercial design and have architectural studios in Santa Fe and Austin and a design studio New Orleans.
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