Flag Lot Diagram
Last Updated: August 8, 2020
Visitor Asked: Like some other people said on here, I'm new to the zoning board in the last six months. Last night someone asked about why we were thinking about allowing a flag lot. I don't even know what that means. Can you enlighten me?
Is a flag lot bad? Under what circumstances?
Editors' Reply: A flag lot is an irregularly shaped building lot or parcel that has a very limited amount of street or road frontage. The part nearest the street, typically used as a driveway, is skinny like the flag pole. Then the wider part of the lot, the flag in this analogy, is back further away from the road frontage.
We have taken the liberty of adding a sketch here, even though usually it is the site visitor who adds the photo. In this case the picture really helps explain this idea.
The narrow part of the lot fronting on the road may consist entirely of the driveway, or this piece may just be substantially more narrow than the rest of the lot. The flag lot was invented because of the need to get to parcels that were not part of any lot that has street frontage.
A flag lot could and often does pertain to a commercial or industrial district as well, by the way. We teach that commercial and industrial areas benefit from some uniformity of lot sizes and shapes just as much as residential areas, so we would hope your planning commission would seek alternative solutions for business locations as well. Here too, you want delivery trucks and emergency services to be able to find locations readily, and flag lots are just not helpful.
Some towns will never find it feasible to make commercial and industrial lots more uniform, but try not to participate in creating new industrial flag lots.
Many subdivision regulations prohibit the creation of new flag lots. In residential areas the rationale for this would be the desire for some degree of uniformity in the building setback line. This tends to create a nicer looking neighborhood in the minds of many people. More importantly to a city government perhaps, flag lots can be mighty confusing to police, fire, garbage collection, or other city services. Utility lines so far tend to be linear, and so if the backs of lots are not somewhat uniform, utility location and servicing tends to become more tricky.
You ask if a flag lot is bad. We would have to say not always. If your zoning board is reviewing a prospective new subdivision or planned development, by all means avoid flag lots for all the reasons implied above. It is better practice to prohibit all flag lots in your regulations than to disapprove of them on a case by case basis.
When reviewing various items that might come up regarding older lots, such as lot splits or lot mergers, you will need to evaluate the context. A flag lot tends to work out much better in a rural area than in suburbs or urban areas. If the area once was rural, and now is becoming part of an exurban and suburban area though, you might want to take the opportunity to question what would happen if you take the action most likely to result in the disappearance of the flag lot situation.
You might ask how a planning board could encourage or cause the flag lot to disappear. That is likely to be extremely tough politically. Depending on your state, the city council may be the ultimate authority and the ones who take the legally binding vote on a matter relevant to a flag lot, and it would be hard for them to do this.
In other states though the planning commission or even the city staff have the ultimate authority over minor subdivisions, as they are often called, or over lot splits or combinations. The land in a flag lot really should be split up and added to the adjacent lots if you see the opportunity to do so because all land owners will be comfortable with that action. This is somewhat unlikely, we have to admit. This action would work best when the rear line of the flag lot is even with the rear lines of the adjoining lots to the right and left.
That might be hard to visualize, so think of it this way. The flag lot may have been created in the first place because one of the owners of the land to the right and left of the flag lot decided to sell part of their land. That owner then was told that the driveway needed to be part of the new lot, rather than an access easement over the land that the owner was keeping. So in this scenario, the flag lot once was part of an adjoining lot anyway.
In the case of a flag lot on commercially or industrially zoned land, we tend to be a bit more tolerant if lot sizes are irregular anyway. Each case then should be evaluated on the basis of whether the flag pole part of the lot provides adequate and safe access for vehicles, whether any utilities or emergency services are inconvenienced by the existence of the flag lot, and whether it is practical to combine the flag lot with one of its adjacent lots or to split it in some way between the adjacent owners.
In sum, a flag lot is far from the worst thing you could allow in your city, but certainly we hope you do not participate in creating any new ones. There is one exception. We do think that a flag lot is preferable to having a lot where the only access is by way of easement over a neighbor's property. So if you have a chance to prevent future conflict due to an encroachment over or very near to an easement, and the only way to eliminate the necessity of the easement is through creating a flag lot, feel free to allow that.
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