Do you know the building setback requirements for your property?

I think many of us have heard of particularly painful mishaps in the development industry: A site plan is developed early on in the preliminary design process, the building footprint is set and the site is designed around it. And since the development plat and legal encumbrances aren’t fully complete, the schematic and its footprints might be assumed a solid base to work from. Then, lo and behold, the project might be many billable hours into design and development before it’s eventually noticed that the building footprint encroaches the building line and needs a re-design.

Even trickier for developers are properties with existing structures on them that only need additional expansion who find out that ever-changing policies and right-of-way development in the City of Houston have placed several feet of that building too close to the thoroughfare. Any significant development at that point would require either a variance or the building to be brought to code. Either case is a costly endeavor.

How can you be sure the development you have in mind will not conflict with Houston’s wildly variant building line standards? I outline the basic standards and common variances below, but ultimately a civil engineer should be an advisor during your due diligence phase.

Platting and Building Lines

Building lines are used by the City of Houston, and other jurisdictions, to establish guidelines on how far a structure must be “set back” from the property line. Typically these are defined for all sides of the property, depending on its use, but usually, the setbacks of concern are the front and rear respective to the accessible thoroughfare.

In the City of Houston, these setbacks are resolved and approved during the platting process. Many municipalities enforce these guidelines through zoning, but Houston does not have formal zoning regulations (although some management districts, super-neighborhoods, and historical zones do assume some amount of pseudo-zoning ordinances).

The setback requirements are primarily outlined within the City of Houston’s Code of Ordinances — specifically Chapter 42 (municode.com), which regulates subdivisions and platting. However, the City so regularly grants variances or imposes more restrictive guidelines on a case-by-case basis that it is difficult to assume that your property will be beholden to the regulation of its respective category.

Regardless, the ordinance is a good basis to make assumptions on the results of the platting process. Below you can find a brief table of the standard guidelines as outlined in the Code of Ordinances.

Setback Variances

The ordinance lists a handful of special cases that could potentially increase or decrease the setback requirements. Additionally, the City grants variances on an individual basis depending on the context of the request and justification. However, a developer shouldn’t rely the viability of their development on securing a variance approval — having a deal-breaking restriction enforced after the investment of the platting process is an expensive mistake.

Some of the common exceptions and variances are:

  • Buildings within the central business district (Downtown, and a sliver of north Midtown) do not have enforceable building setbacks.
  • Buildings along Transit Corridor Streets along the METRORail and the Type A streets that intersect them can possibly be afforded zero-foot lot lines
  • Buildings may at times encroach the building line up to 30″ for eaves, bay windows, chimneys, and other decorative feature provided it is cantilevered over 9 feet (12 if over a driveway) from the foundation.
  • Building has been verified as a historic preservation structure, by the City’s code.
  • Older buildings that did not encroach the setback at the time of their construction but now extend beyond the current delineation, provided the encroached area is not structurally reconstructed or dimensionally altered.
  • Single family garages are allowed a rear building line of 10′ to a Major Thoroughfare if access is not provided to the road.
  • A commercial development may be allowed a zero-foot building line if a 6′ arcade or colonnade is provided along the front of the development and parking is in the rear of the building.

Additional Setback Restrictions

Occasionally the development may be subject to stricter setback requirements. Often these restrictions will be due to the presence of pipelines along the Right of Way, which establish a 15′ setback requirement from the center line of the pipe.

Additionally, if the development is at the corner of an intersection or turn, it will have to adhere to additional visibility requirements. A visibility triangle, or unobstructed visibility easement (UVE), is established as a safety instrument that prevents any obstruction such that motorists would be unable to see crossing traffic. The size of this easement is dependent on the speed limit of the road and the presence of stop signs or traffic signaling.

Do you explicitly know the building setbacks for your particular property? A civil engineering consultant will be an expert advisor in determining the encumbrances your property will carry and the effect it will have your desired development. If you need guidance, I or one of our consultants at BIG RED DOG Engineering would love to walk you through your current property and development. I encourage you to call us at 832-730-1901 or email me at shaun.theriot-smith@bigreddog.com.

Have you wrestled with building setbacks in the past? Leave a comment below.