First-Timer Primer: Zoning and Your Planned Rowhouse Addition

by Lark Turner

First-Timer Primer: Zoning and Your Planned Rowhouse Addition: Figure 1
Additions to two rowhouses in Hill East.

This article was originally published on UrbanTurf in 2016. 

The District’s mostly brick, turn-of-the-century rowhomes can be as inflexible as they are charming; they are often narrow and small, with limited natural light, and don’t easily lend themselves to a lot of different layouts.

Which leads many owners to consider an addition. Before you move forward, it’s important to consider a few factors like whether or not your home is in a historic district or whether an addition to your home may require getting a zoning exception. Here are some questions to ask before you hire a contractor.

Is your home in a historic district?

If so, you’ll need to get approval from DC's Historic Preservation Office before you can get your hands on a building permit. On the plus side, determining whether or not your home is in a historic district is relatively simple — you can check it out on a map here.

How much of the lot is your home occupying?

This is the most important question to answer when you’re deciding whether to build an addition and when setting your expectations for that addition. You’re not going to be able to build your rowhouse out all the way to the property line; you’ll have to follow rules about lot occupancy. DC generally allows homes to take up 60 percent of the lot on which they sit. The calculations include your house and any other structures on your property, like a garage.

Paul Wilson, an architect who routinely represents clients in front of the Board of Zoning Adjustment (BZA), told UrbanTurf that many existing rowhouses are “nonconforming,” meaning they already don’t adhere to the city’s current rules about lot occupancy. Building an addition on one of these lots may be difficult.

“Chances are if you’re doing any kind of addition in a rowhouse neighborhood, you’re going to run into that,” Wilson said. “If you have a rowhouse and a garage on your lot, you’re probably already over the lot occupancy.”

How large of an addition are you going to build?

If you are able to build an addition on your lot, you’ll next have to determine how large it can be. When homeowners go to the Board of Zoning Adjustment to get permission to build an addition, they may be seeking a special exception or a variance. Special exceptions require less proof than a variance does, meaning they’re generally easier to get, Wilson said.

But there’s a catch: To try and get a special exception, your home plus the addition can’t take up more than 70 percent of the lot. If the structure goes over that limit, you’ll be seeking a variance, which could be more difficult to obtain.

Do you need representation?

Not necessarily, though having representation, in the form of a lawyer, architect or other land use expert can save you a lot of time and probably some headaches.

“Generally BZA wants to give homeowners the relief, but the burden of proof is still on the applicant, so you have to get them there by showing them convincing evidence,” Wilson said. “You have to understand the rules and what the criteria are that BZA will accept.”

A homeowner can successfully represent themselves, he said, but may have to appear in front of the board multiples times to provide more and better documentation.The BZA itself urges applicants to get professional representation, probably because it saves them time, too.

If you do decide to hire someone, make sure to ask about their experience and success rate, Wilson said. The BZA notes that anyone can look up video of previous proceedings online to see how well a representative has performed in front of the board in previous cases. You’ll just need to get case numbers from the representative and look up the cases online here.

See other articles related to: zoning, first-timer primer, board of zoning adjustment

This article originally published at http://dc.urbanturf.com/articles/blog/first-timer_primer_zoning_and_your_planned_rowhouse_addition/9682


  1. chet said at 4:00 pm on Wednesday March 25, 2015:
    Does this include the front yard (infamous for who actually owns it - city/you) - our house is set back about 8 feet - for about 200 sq feet. This would determine if we could build back or not - also in a historic district - so who knows - but I'm sure I'm like a lot of people who love the city, in that I would love to stay but we need more space as our family grows and it's obviously much cheaper to add on than to buy a bigger house.
  1. Lark Turner said at 4:38 pm on Wednesday March 25, 2015:
    Hi Chet, This includes the total lot — so yes, property that is a part of your front yard is included — but you'll need a plat to determine exactly where your lot lies vs. where the city's land is, and to calculate your current lot occupancy. In this case, I would recommend seeking advice from an expert to help you move forward. Lark
  1. Josh said at 6:43 pm on Wednesday March 25, 2015:
    How do “pop-ups” factor into the lot occupancy equation? Our rowhome has a garage totaling more than 70% of the lot occupancy, so it is already non-conforming. If we’re not seeking to increase the footprint of the house…will we still need to seek the variance?
  1. Lark Turner said at 6:58 pm on Wednesday March 25, 2015:
    Hi Josh, You should seek expert advice on this one. But to answer part of your question, pop-ups that go straight up, and don't increase the footprint of the home, don't factor into lot occupancy. Still, there are other factors at play here. First, lot occupancy isn't the only potential zoning issue homeowners may run into when trying to expand. Second, getting a permit may be a problem if your existing home is nonconforming. That's why I'd recommend seeking advice from someone who understands the zoning code and process well. Best, Lark
  1. skidrowedc@gmail.com said at 9:32 pm on Wednesday March 25, 2015:
    Per DC Zoning 2001.3, "Enlargements and additions may be made to [buildings that have nonconformities with respect to zoning]; Provided that the following requirements shall be met: a) The structure shall conform to percentage of lot occupancy requirements; and b) The addition or enlargement itself shall conform to use and structure requirements; and c) The addition or enlargement itself shall not increase or extend any existing nonconforming aspect of the structure, and shall not create any new nonconformity of structure and addition combined." ("Structure" in this context is synonymous with "building." It does not refer to the structural system of loadbearing beams, walls, etc.) One can easily get tripped up on any of these, but requirements percentage of lot occupancy (Item a) is instant death. If your existing house is over its lot occupancy limit, you are not allowed to add ANYTHING -- whether it affects lot occupancy or not. I once had a permit reviewer question a slightly popped-up skylight on the grounds that it could constitute an "addition or enlargement." Other "structural nonconformities" (rear and side yard setbacks, court widths, height, overall square footage/FAR, etc.) often present challenges, but they don't, in and of themselves, prevent one from doing an addition. For example, if the existing house is closer to the rear lot line than zoning allows, a roof addition would have to set back to the required amount, but the existing can remain as is. Re Chet's question -- If you live in a DC rowhouse built before WWI, odds are very high that the front wall of your house is on the property line, and your entire "front yard" is in fact Public Space (known archaically as "public parking," or sometimes the "green space"). As such, it does not count in the lot occupancy calculation. Later rowhouse developments are sometimes set back from the front property line, but it's the exception to the rule and even then, the "private space" rarely goes all the way to the sidewalk. You can usually get a pretty good handle on the situation by looking in the Baist Map books (MLK Library Washingtoniana Collection), or get a professional survey for certainty. You might need the professional survey anyway, for an authoritative calculation of lot occupancy.

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