Ask the Architect

Setbacks? Zoning variances? Help!


Q. We recently ran into zoning problems to do an extension and have stopped everything until we can regroup, since we had a specific time frame and failed to meet it before our daughter’s wedding. When we found out we had a problem with setback, we were disappointed. First of all, why does it take so long to get a zoning variance? Second, what is a zoning variance? And third, what is a setback, exactly? It was explained to us that we want to build too close to our fence, but our neighbors are all that close to their fences, so it doesn’t make sense. Why is this such a problem?

A. Sounds like you feel set back by your setbacks. And you are. The setback is the distance between your building and the edges of your property, which you described as your fence line. Since fences are often incorrectly placed off the exact legal property boundary, called your property line, you should not use them as the point to measure from. What you should use as the property line is the distance shown on your property survey (map), which is often included with closing papers for your home.

The survey looks like a map of your property, showing the measured shape of your home, your street and the lengths of each side of your property. People often mistake the written description on their deed, which states the degrees of the compass and the distance, with words like “running thence XX degrees north XX feet, running thence XX degrees,” etc. Using the survey, you can measure from the outside wall of your house to the closest property line. Measure out perpendicularly. Otherwise, have a licensed surveyor mark the distance, which usually involves staking. People often call an architect or engineer to mark the line, but this task should be done by a licensed land surveyor.

As for zoning variances: A variance means you request to vary, to differ, from the rules. In order to make your case to differ from the rules that were put in place for all the properties in your area, you have to go through a proceeding. The meeting or hearing where you make your case is actually a legal hearing, less formal than being in a courtroom with a judge but with the same legal ramifications. It has been described by one zoning board’s attorney as a “quasi-judicial” proceeding.

Why does it take so long? For several reasons: There’s a minimum waiting time requirement to allow for neighboring property owners to be notified by mail and advertisement in the newspaper. There are many properties that require variances because of either existing illegal conditions or proposed conditions that, just like your property, exceed requirements, so the schedule is often full. Also, since communities change their rules, what your neighbor has may no longer be allowed the same way. As you’ve learned, timing is everything. Good luck!

© 2015 Monte Leeper. Readers are encouraged to send questions to, with “Herald question” in the subject line, or to Herald Homes, 2 Endo Blvd., Garden City, NY 11530, Attn: Monte Leeper, architect.