New Residence on Narrow Lot

by Thea Sasseen
(New Orleans, LA, USA)

Visitor Question: What size lot is necessary for new residential structures in the Treme, District 2? I am interested in whether one can build between two homes on an empty lot sized 16x76.

Editors Reply: Thea, to know the answer to that, you will need to talk to a staff member at the City of New Orleans. We decided to respond to your question even though we cannot possibly keep current on every zoning code in the U.S. and other countries, simply because you sent an intriguing question and photo.

Our comments may help other readers, and we hope they help you prepare for what may happen.

As you and other readers may know, we are big fans of infill housing in developed neighborhoods. Adding residents helps bring vibrancy to the streets and contributes to the market demand that will support local businesses.

More "eyes on the street" also is helpful in crime prevention.

And in an area such as the Treme neighborhood in New Orleans, which is just bursting with character, the right addition to a block boosts its aesthetic appeal as well.

Now in most cities in the U.S., if you asked about building something on a lot that is 16 feet wide, you would be laughed out of city hall, and insulted by neighboring property owners and strangers.

But in a neighborhood such as this one, where narrow lots are not all that unusual, you might have a good chance. It's hard to tell from the photo, but it looks as if there is a narrow home backing up to this lot. Those are the kinds of arguments you want to bring up if you have to go through some kind of discretionary process to gain approval.

By "discretionary process," we mean something such as an historic district approval, an administrative hearing, a site plan approval, or a zoning variance, where your case is considered individually.

If you have to make an argument in an older, established neighborhood such as this one, you can research whether the lot previously had a structure on it, and if so, what the dimensions of the structure were.

In our very own neighborhood, this was a winning argument before a zoning board of appeals. The board noted that a previous home, which had been demolished, had the same narrow setbacks that the current property owner was seeking to be allowed. In other words, the zoning code had become more strict since the previous home was built, and what once was legal now had become illegal.

So the board felt it was appropriate to allow a variance to the zoning ordinance, and the property owner received approval.

You might have to go down the variance route also. This usually entails a hearing either before a city staff member or before a citizens' board that is separate from the planning commission. The zoning appeals board, which is called by several different names, is more common, although administrative hearings are rising as a share of the variance activity, especially in larger cities.

For more description of the variance process, see our page on the subject.

It's also possible of course that when you call the City, they will say that yes, this is allowed "as of right," meaning you do not have to go through any special procedures and can just proceed to apply for a building permit when you are ready. Good luck with this.

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