High-Density Zoning in Land Development
Zoning and the Land Developer
High density zoning offers attractive incentives for both the permitting authorities and the land developer. High density in projects will affect the character of the finished product, so attention must be paid in conceptual planning and going forward to develop, construct and successfully market a competitive product.
What is the origin & concept of high-density zoning?
Historically, urban planning and permitting authorities were under intense pressure to reduce and manage the environmental impacts of real estate development projects. They still are today.
Back then it was clear that untouched raw land would continue to be developed, so more of the focus became centered on how the land would be developed and managed in the future.
The underlying concept of high-density zoning is to minimize the constructed footprint of a land development project and provide for dedicated undeveloped open space. Let’s say the zoning allows for ½ acre lots and you have 100 acres. Mathematically, you could use a simple equation to say that you could develop 200 ½-acre lots on the 100 acres.
Of course, it isn’t that simple since one must subtract lot yield acreage for roads, other infrastructure, permitting requirements, environmentally sensitive areas, and other natural features of the land. After subtracting for all of this, let’s say you could realistically get 150 lots out of the 100 acres using ½ acre zoning.
One way to do it would be to use the entire 100 acres and plat 150 traditional rectangular lots. That typically puts the infrastructure and common area improvements under the Homeowner’s Association, and the individual lot acreage under the individual owners. In theory, all the 100 acres gets actively used for something.
Another way to do it would be to plat the project and improvements on only 50 acres of the available 100, decrease the lot size below ½ acre, and leave the remaining 50 acres in dedicated open space that will be untouched forever as part of the approved plat.
Why Developers like high density:
It’s really quite simple. Staying with the example above, if a developer can put 150 lots on only 50 of 100 acres, his construction costs are vastly reduced. Imagine running an 8” ductile iron water line at $50.00 per linear foot. If you had to do it through only 50 acres vs 100, the cost savings would be substantial. The same goes for other underground utilities like sewer & power, not to mention roads.
The catch from the developer’s point of view is that there are still market areas where Buyers demand larger, more traditional lots. If you are clustering high density lots and the competing projects are doing traditional rectangular layouts of much larger individual lots, you could be at a competitive disadvantage when the “For Sale” signs go up.
Why counties like high-density:
Obviously, to reduce the environmental footprint of a project. The additional gain from the county point of view is to require dedicated open space as a condition of plat approval. This open space is dedicated in perpetuity (forever). Dedicated open space can be in different forms, everything from true blue, “no touch ever” conservation easements to open space that allows for passive use, like walking trails. Sometimes there are several forms of open space in the same project.
Counties also like these layouts since the maintenance and compliance responsibilities for dedicated open space will be assigned to the community Homeowner’s Association. If compliance falters, as defined on the face of the approved plat, the county code enforcement folks only have to beat up the Association, not the individual homeowner (most of the time).
Techniques to mitigate the cramped effect:
The raw land developer can compensate for the jammed feel to some degree by staggering building envelopes, but there is always a negative trade off. High-density lots are just that – they are tiny, the homes are cramped together and there is little or no room to be creative. I have found that certain areas of the country have different ways of attacking this. In the Pacific Northwest the answer is to gain square footage by going vertical. In Florida, the elderly demographic demands one story homes. Elderly folks don’t want a lot of square footage anyway, so in Florida they just go with fewer square feet and everyone is happy.
Developers and home builders get around the close density of the homes by offering community amenities. Things like walking trails in the approved open spaces, community centers, dog parks, play areas, pool facilities, tennis courts, picnic and miscellaneous gathering areas.
The practical effects of high-density communities:
High-density projects generally mean zero, or near zero, lot lines. To picture this, imagine looking out the side window of your master bedroom and seeing your neighbor’s bedroom window just 6-8 feet away. This brings up a valid case for window coverings and it certainly brings out the claustrophobic tendencies in me.
The building lots and homes are typically narrow and deep. By cramming more narrow lots along the street frontage, less road and associated infrastructure costs are incurred, which saves the developer money. Permitting authorities also favor this design because there is less impervious road surface, which reduces the amount of surface water runoff from rain that would otherwise go to detention ponds or other collection and distribution infrastructure.
Formulas for dissatisfaction in high density communities:
Narrow lots = narrow homes = less garage space. It’s truly amazing what builders get away with today by calling it a side-by-side 2 car garage.
Deep lots = long & deep homes = short driveways (the sq. footage has to go somewhere) = neighbor’s 1992 Buick LaSabre in driveway. This is another beef of mine. You could barely fit a Civic in the driveway, let alone cram it in the garage. Plus, don’t forget your wife’s car…
Lots where every sq. ft. is used = no place to store things = junk stored outside. This is where strong community leadership is required by the HOA to minimize visual blight. It usually starts out slowly though; 1 bike, then 2, then the lawn mower……then junkyard!
The future is here:
High density zoning is preferred by planning & permitting authorities, along with most developers. Anyone that has shopped newer projects as a home buyer can clearly see it, so to preserve the integrity of future communities developers should be active participants in any planned zoning revisions in the areas that they are working in. Advocacy for zoning laws that allow for flexibility in amenity design, active and passive uses, and pod / lot design is needed. By taking an active role with urban planners, the raw land developer serves the customer, current and future projects, as well as the best interests of investors.