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How is your life impacted by zoning regulations?

You might be surprised by the far-reaching effects that zoning ordinances have on our living environments. They impact where we live, how we get around, and the people we bump into. Decisions about the types of buildings constructed, whether existing properties can be augmented or repurposed, and if new structures can replace existing ones also depend on these regulations.

Unfortunately, zoning is often complex and opaque, buried within PDF documents and varying largely between municipalities. We aim to clarify the basics of zoning and offer resources to find out more about your area’s particular regulations. Even if you’re not considering making changes, a neighbor’s plans could benefit or diminish the value of your property–so it’s vital to have an understanding of how zoning works.

Purpose of Zoning

Zoning laws exist to protect the health, safety and general welfare of residents in a community. When implemented effectively, zoning can promote inclusion, create opportunity, protect against overcrowding, preserve park spaces, and enrich lives and communities. Local governments and planning boards have a mandate to follow a General or Comprehensive Plan ensuring that all growth and development aligns with a community’s long-term goals and values. The General Plan is intended to be a guide to help the city manage future growth. This page is a great resource to follow planning updates in Salt Lake City.

Common Zoning Designations

Zoning designations vary from city to city but tend to share some common elements. In the code, for example, “R” typically signifies residential use. The number following the letter indicates the level of density and height permitted, with higher numbers allowing for more density and height compared to lower ones. Similarly, “C” is for commercial areas and “M” designates manufacturing zones. You can find a full list of zoning districts in Salt Lake City here and find the zoning for your particular property using this map.

  • Common Zoning Parameters Permitted and Conditional Use are categories that dictate which types of activities or developments are allowed in specific zoning districts. Permitted Use or “use by right” are activities or developments that are explicitly allowed. These uses are typically deemed compatible with the overall character or goals of the area and do not require special approval beyond meeting standard zoning requirements. Conditional Use, on the other hand, are activities or developments that may be allowed under certain conditions or subject to specific criteria. Conditional uses are typically ones that may impact the surrounding area such as through increased traffic, noise, or environmental concerns (e.g. restaurants, hotels, daycares). Conditional use permits are often required and applicants must demonstrate compliance with specified conditions to obtain approval. This is a table of permitted or conditional uses for residential districts in Salt Lake City.
  • Minimum Lot Area and Building Height are tied to the overall density of a district. Minimum Lot Area requirements establish the smallest size of land parcel permitted for development to ensure that buildings are adequately spaced apart. Building Height dictates how tall structures can be on a given lot to maintain neighborhood aesthetics and preserve views. Here you can see the “R-1/12,000” zoning designation in Salt Lake City permits Single-Family Homes built on lots greater than 12,000 sq.ft. with a maximum building height of 28’ with a pitched roof or 20’ with a flat roof.
  • Setbacks are side, front, and rear distances that determine how close to your property lines you can build and define the buildable area of the lot. Setbacks preserve the character of the surrounding environment while maximizing land use efficiency. Side setbacks maintain space between buildings preventing congestion. Front setbacks enhance streetscapes by establishing visual buffers and allowing space for trees and bike parking. Rear setbacks ensure everyone has some usable backyard, and provide a green corridor within the block. In some cities like New York, there are no setback rules so you can build right up to the property line.

Current Issues Along the Wasatch Front

Salt Lake City is one of the fastest growing cities in the nation fueled by a diverse job market and vibrant community. But with the growth comes concern about housing affordability. The housing shortage (competition) coupled with a decline in purchasing power (inflation) and rising interest rates (increased cost of borrowing) present challenges for homebuyers, particularly for first-time buyers and low-to-moderate income households.

What does “Affordable Housing” mean?

According to Salt Lake County Community Resources and Development, housing is considered affordable when a household is paying no more than 30% of their total gross income towards housing expenses (rent/mortgage and utilities). Renter median income in the Wasatch Front has not been able to keep up with rent increases and housing costs leaving many renters priced out.

What about Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs)?

You’ve likely heard the term ADU in the media in recent years. These are livable units that can be converted from existing space within a single-family home (e.g., basement apartments); an addition to a single-family home (e.g., side or back of home); part of a separate building on the same lot (e.g., above a detached garage); or a stand-alone building on the same lot (e.g., a tiny home in the backyard). An “internal ADU” is an accessory dwelling unit that is within the footprint of the single-family home (occupied as the primary residence of the owner) and created for the purpose of being offered for rent for 30 days or longer. A “detached ADU” are structures built outside the single-family home.

Accessory Dwelling Unit above a detached garage in Daybreak.

To address the statewide shortage of affordable housing, the Utah Legislature recently stepped in to encourage more use of Accessory Dwelling Units or ADUs by creating a statute that requires all counties and municipalities to include a moderate income housing strategy in their general plan which could include regulations for ADUs in residential zones. The State also created a statute which generally requires internal ADUs be a permitted use in any residential zone. These statues and others were adopted in 2021 and left to municipalities and counties to interpret and implement ordinances accordingly. You can read about how Salt Lake City handled changes to ADU rules here and guidelines on adding an ADU to your home here. The topic of ADUs has become so popular that some builders like R5 Homes are building homes with an ADU built into the floorplan!

Who do I contact if a neighbor is doing something that violates zoning code?

To report zoning violations in your neighborhood, you can contact your local zoning or code enforcement department. For example, Salt Lake City provides a map for residents to locate the contact information of the Civil Enforcement officer assigned to their neighborhood. They are responsible for addressing issues related to housing, zoning, weeds, ADU and STR violations. Common zoning violations in residential neighborhoods can include illegal home businesses, fence height and placement, vehicles parked on lawns, not maintaining required landscaping and short-term rentals or ADUs without the necessary permits. Code enforcement helps promote community well-being, preserves the appearance and value of neighborhoods and ensures that all residents can enjoy a safe and healthy environment.

What is the best way to be part of the conversation?

The best ways to get involved are by staying informed, joining neighborhood associations, and attending public meetings. Sign up for updates from your city council and planning divisions. Choose the issues that are most interesting and important to you. Think big about what you want your neighborhood to look and feel like.

A resident of Cottonwood Heights, where I live, proposed the idea for the city to buy and develop a mostly deserted strip mall known as Hillside Plaza. Many businesses who used to operate within Hillside Plaza closed their doors after the pandemic and the city is repurposing it as a walkable, mixed-use gathering space and town center. Lesson learned: don’t be afraid to speak up because your active participation really can contribute to positive changes in your community.

If you have specific questions about the zoning ordinances in your area and how they can impact your property value, please give me a call. I love having conversations about all things real estate related.

Catherine Chen is a Realtor with Niche Homes. Her background in finance and investing give her the business savvy needed to complete any transaction. Give her a call if you’re interested in advancing your real estate goals.

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