“Can anyone explain the zoning restrictions that deal with % of lot occupancy?”

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“Dear PoPville,

Can anyone explain the zoning restrictions that deal with % of lot occupancy available for certain zones (R-2, R-3 and such)? I do not know much about this, but bought a house a while back where the previous owner had sold a portion of the back lot to a neighbor. By all indications, they sold more than enough to throw the lot size versus house size out of whack by most percentages I can find as legally allowed in the District. I’m curious what the process is by which that could have happened legally and if found to not have happened legally, is there any recourse I have as the new owner? Obviously if the lot versus occupancy % is over the limit, there’s zero options to expand. I have no concerns over that as much as wondering if I have a smaller lot than I should have because of illegal actions by a previous owner. Anyone dealt with this or know how to research this?”

16 Comment

  • 1) zoning district summaries: http://dcoz.dc.gov/MapsDemo/ZoningInfo.html#tabs-help-2

    2) Those are by-right restrictions. Look into a zoning variance or special exception if you’re set on expanding. It’s expensive, but it’s always possible.

  • Same thing happened to me. The past owner didn’t do anything illegal. They could still sell the land it just means you can’t expand on it without a variance. Most old houses in dc are over the % since the %s were set after they were built. Sucks finding this out after you buy. I know the feeling. Not sure what the rationale for this rule is. If you don’t want to pay for the variance, you can only go up or down…which is starting to be even more restricted…

  • The zoning office has a website that contains a chart of the various % occupancy limits based on your zoning (R-2 or whatever). The rest of your questions are tough to answer without seeing what you are talking about, so you may want to consult with a real estate lawyer. If you are trying to do an addition but don’t meet the limit because of the prior sale of part of your lot, you may still be able to do it with a variance.

  • I’m the OP here. Just to clarify, my interest is not really focused on the ability or inability to expand (at least not in the immediate future). I recognize that I would have difficulty there considering that I am well over the allowable ratio because of the sale of the portion of the lot by the previous owner. I was just curious if the zoning prevented someone from selling land such that their property then exceeds the allowable ratio. It sounds like this might only apply if you are expanding the house, not selling the land and leaving the house as is. I was hoping perhaps the previous sale of the land was done in violation of the regulations and could be voided. I figured that was a long shot, but thought I would ask.

    • when you purchased your home, you likely paid for title insurance, which should have included a pretty thorough title search. there also should have been a plat from the surveyor. if the subdivision of the land is in there, it’s almost 100 percent official and done legally.

      • +1. The title insurance/ company should have verified that the title (house and lot) were legal to allow them to ensure your title. If they found an issue, they would have told you. I’d check back with them if you have specific question regarding lot size etc.

  • This: https://gov.propertyinfo.com/DC-Washington/ is the landing page for the recorder of deeds. You can research all the transactions for your address going back to 1921. Having said that, there’s no such thing as a standard lot size that your house should have unless it was built after the zoning code was enacted in the 50’s, and even then there’s only a minimum size.

  • In my understanding the lot coverage requirements only kick-in with proposed new construction or major renovation – not sale of the property. In the same way many existing homes exceed the limits, a portion of your property could have been sold by prior owners creating a situation where the property now exceeds the stated limits (but is not at risk of violation). Sure sucks, though.

  • ah

    If a property owner subdivides land, I believe that subdivision could not take the lot out of conformance. In other words, if your house requires 3000 sq. ft. to meet the lot occupancy requirements, you couldn’t subdivide it so that the house sat on a lot of less than 3000 sq. ft.

    If someone applies to subdivide property in order to sell part of the lot, DCRA should have checked whether it was allowed. If it was done prezoning it could have been allowed then, even though it wouldn’t be now. Or, as DCRA often does, they could have approved something they should not have. It might not have even needed that approval if it previously was a separate record lot that happened to be under common ownership – it’s not uncommon for a house to be on two or more record lots, or at least for the house to be on one and the property of the other lot to be conveyed together with it.

    Regardless, it is highly unlikely that you would be able to get the sale of an improperly subdivided lot voided so that you could get that piece of property back. You could ask title insurance co whether they would pursue it, but keep in mind even if you could void the sale you would likely have to pay the current owner compensation – it would be unjust enrichment otherwise, because when you bought you paid for only your lot, not the previously sold one.

    • The portion of the lot was sold within the last two years, so I would imagine the zoning laws were in place at that point. I estimate it took the lot from a 30-40% occupied to at least now 70% occupied. Based on the zoning, I think 60% is the allowed ratio. My question stemmed from wondering how the previous owner managed to sell off so much of the lot legally if there are these lot to house ratios in place. I would have thought they would have had to have kept enough of the lot to be at the allowable ratio.

      I agree that voiding the prior sale would be tough and certainly not done without paying for the lot to get it back, but if I thought I could, I would to get more of the lot back. The previously owner was ultimately in foreclosure, so my best guess is they were in dire straits and sold the lot desperate for the money. All conjecture, and I certainly knew what I was buying when I bought it, but the longer I live there, the more annoying it is, especially since I have no access to the alley.

      • I wonder if not having access to the alley is legal, or whether there is a presumed easement for you to be able to use the alley. I’d look into that – not for purposes of voiding the sale necessarily, though who knows, but possibly separately just to have use of the alley over that land.

        • I agree with the above. It’s very likely that the city has an easement on the sold section of the property, so you may be able to cross it for garbage. Either way I’m really interested to hear how this pans out.

    • would the title insurance not be responsible for any compensation owed to the neighbor who bought the slice of land (assuming the sale is voided)?

  • To understand the facts related to this particular property, we encourage the poster to contact DCRA and provide the address or square and lot of the properties in question and OZA staff will research the matter and would then be better able to address the poster’s question about whether they may expand their existing home.

    Generally speaking, the District of Columbia’s zoning regulations (DCMR Title 11) limit the maximum amount of allowable lot occupancy by zone, and the maximum allowable lot occupancy depends on the zone in which the property is located. The provisions governing maximum lot occupancy are set for in Section 403.2. For example, the maximum amount of allowable lot occupancy for properties zoned R-1 and R-2 is 40% as per Section 403.2.

    Additionally, when someone seeks to subdivide a property, they are required to apply for a record lot subdivision, and provide a plat showing the lots, which is reviewed by the Office of the Zoning Administrator (OZA) at the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) to ensure that the resulting lots conform with the zoning regulations related to lot width, lot area, and lot occupancy. OZA will approve a subdivision application only if either the newly-created or existing lot(s) comply with these requirements.

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