Zoning setbacks for replacing a structure

by Tom
(Johnstown, PA)

Visitor Question: We are planning a remodel of our home and part of our plan is to rebuild our garage and make it wider. The garage would not move closer to our property line. My question is if I would tear down the section already in the setback would I be subject to the setback rules? If that would be subject to the rules, would I be able to partially tear down the garage leaving portions within the setback in place and still widen my garage?

Editors Reply: We were a little confused about your question, since we didn't understand how you could make your garage wider without it being closer to the property line. We're going to answer the question we think you are asking.

We interpret that you want to make your garage wider, which would move it closer to the side yard property line (and setback, if your particular zoning ordinance requires one). But we also think you are saying that the front of your garage now intrudes into the current required front yard setback. If that is not correct, you will have to adjust our advice a bit. But we can answer your main question.

The answer is that in almost all zoning ordinances-- since many came from the same templates and since there is a lot of copying between municipalities--you cannot rebuild a "nonconforming use" once it is destroyed by any means, including purposeful tear-down. Your garage now is a nonconforming use, if indeed part of it is in the setback. So that is discouraging news for what you propose to do.

On the other hand, sometimes the wording is that you cannot "expand" the nonconforming use, and the law or the administrative interpretation of it may indicate that you could build the same square footage that you have now in any configuration you choose.

It is also possible that your town does not follow the typical practice of forbidding the reconstruction or partial reconstruction of a nonconforming use.

Now comes the important part of our advice on this subject. Go see whoever administers the zoning ordinance in your town, and ask them the question directly. Every zoning ordinance is slightly different, even though there is the tendency for them to be similar that we spoke about earlier. So you never know until you ask.

If you are shy about doing this, don't be. City officials everywhere with a zoning ordinance are used to many types of questions.

If you live where there is a building code as well as a zoning code, you eventually will have to have some sort of drawing or plot plan to show your proposed dimensions anyway, so just prepare for this before you visit city hall. No doubt Johnstown has adopted a building code and will require you to get a building permit for the rebuilt structure.

You probably would be able to obtain a general answer to your question with one simple phone call if you are working during business hours. The reason we always advise a visit in person, if that is possible for you and if the stakes are high enough is that often these chats raise other issues that you may not have thought about.

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