FAR and regulatory confiscation

The latest land grab by our P&Z continues the process of confiscation of homeowners’ property that has been steadily increasing for the past two decades. The subject is far too long to discuss in just one blog post so I thought I’d break it up into different issues, beginning with the Floor Area Regulation (FAR) themselves.

First implemented to limit the bulk and size of homes with the stated purpose of “preserving the streetscape”.

Tasked by the RTM with establishing regulations to implement this goal, the RTM Land Use Committee worked with staff members of the Planning & Zoning and, after much grunting and squeezing, produced a schedule of size limitations, based on lot size and what, in their opinion, was the ideal maximum size of a house on a given acreage. To accomplish this, they promulgated a “Floor Area Ratio”, the maximum size of a house in each zoning division and calculated by multiplying a lot’s size by a maximum allowable ratio: 

Those ratios were, and still are, as follows:

RA-4 (4 acre zone):    0.0625             10,890 sq. ft

RA2-(2 acre zone):      0.09                    7,840

RA-1 (1 acre zone):      0.135                 5,880.6

R-20 (20,000 sq.ft):   0.225                 4,500

R-12 (12,000 sq.ft):     0.315                 3,780

R-7    (7,000 sq. ft):      0.36                   2,520

To determine the maximum size of a house on your property, you take the actual square footage of your lot and multiply by the applicable ratio. The GAR has an illustration here, but say you’re in the R-1 zone and conveniently have exactly one acre of land. That’s 43,560 sq. ft. and if you multiply that by 0.135, you will obtain the size building the land Use Committee, in its wisdom, has decreed shall be the right-sized house for you: in this case, 5,880.6.

Straight forward, right? But suppose you live on an undersized lot, one smaller than the area prescribed by our zoning laws, which were superimposed on our town long after lots had been created and sold off. Old Greenwich, for instance, has many lots dating back to the days when that area was called “Sound Beach” and was a summer community of weekend houses. many of those lots are well under the 20,000 sq.ft. dictated by R-20 zoning but, until FAR came along, it wasn’t much of a problem. Now it is, because the RTM Land Use Commission has refused to permit any adjustment to their carefully devised formula.

Here’s how that works in practice:

Lot size                Zone                       FAR                       Max. size house this zone                Maximum size house, this lot

12,000                 R-20                       0.225                                        4,500                                                                 2,700

3/4 acre               R-1                          0.135                                        5,880.6                                                              4,410

2 acre                    R-4                          0.625                                       10,890                                                               5,445

Who has just 2 acres in the R-4 Back Country?  Well, lots of people, but certainly anyone who purchased in a “conservation zone”, an area created by, who else?, the RTM Land Use Commission pre -FAR, to encourage builder/developers to cluster homes and leave larger areas of open area. If you bought there, you are limited to a house smaller than that permitted in the one acre zone even though you have twice the land and even though the RTM determined that the ideal house size on one acre was 5,880 sq. ft. and on a 2 acre lot, 7,840.

Do you think the value of your land is not diminished if a buyer is limited to expanding your house to just half the size of your neighbors? You are wrong. Do you suppose that a 2,700 sq. ft. home in Old Greenwich will be as valuable as the 4,500 sq. ft. house down the street? Wrong again. Even if a buyer loves your house exactly the way it is, he will pay less for your property than one that is not non-conforming because its resale value will be less.

Again, if a 5,880.6 sq.ft. house is appropriate for a one acre lot in the one acre zone, why can you only build a 2,772 sq.ft. house on one acre in the four-acre zone? The RTM Land Use Commission refuses to answer this question.

Next up: Garages, Attics

I’ll discuss the FAR’s effect on garages and attics when I revisit this topic – you won’t like what you hear.

It’s impossible to vote out the entire RTM – there already are more openings for members than candidates and these people never leave. But you could try contacting members of the RTM Land Use Commission and letting them know your views. Here are at least some of them:

RTM Land Use Committee


Delegate District: 1

Alternate District: 1

Delegate District: 2

Alternate District: 2

Delegate District: 3

Alternate District: 3

Delegate District: 4

Alternate District: 4

Delegate District: 5

Alternate District: 5

Delegate District: 6

Alternate District: 6

Delegate District: 7

Alternate District: 7

Delegate District: 8

Alternate District: 8

Delegate District: 9

Alternate District: 9

Delegate District: 10

Alternate District: 10

Delegate District: 11

Alternate District: 11

Delegate District: 12

Alternate District: 12


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15 responses to “FAR and regulatory confiscation

  1. Demmerkrat Patriot

    At least get the information right … use the RTM web site, not the outdated information on the town web site:


  2. Well done description of what has not been.
    2 dimensional box checkers is the limit of talent we “rely on”…

  3. greenwich dude

    the bigger question, perhaps related to the questions on greenwich, scholastic achievement, and “everyday” math, is why they can’t just take the zoning-scaled FAR ratios they’ve come up with that they know they like and use them to generate a best-fit line across all continuous property sizes, so you just have a FUNCTION where you input your property size whatever it is and the FAR function spits out the housing size? wouldn’t that just take care of many of these these issues of custom-sized lots in the zones in one fell swoop, while being less complicated? who ARE these people?

  4. Demmerkrat Patriot

    CF: the http://rtm.greenwich.org is maintained by the RTM and the Town Clerk’s office, so it IS the authoritative list of RTM members and committees. The stuff on the “Town” web site is ancient and not maintained.

  5. Real Estate Junkie

    Why? Why saddle everyone with such ridiculous rules?

  6. TraderVic

    I called P&Z this morning. I was told that the Zoning Enforcement Officer has a list of lots that have exceeded their green space. I have asked for this Bad Boy List and am waiting for their answer. If I do get it, I will certainly share it with y’all. Stay tuned…

  7. Nathan Hale.

    Thank you for your reasonable explanation of what FAR is about. Good points on undersized lots. But there is much more. In the first place, many areas of the 1954 zoning map deliberately applied an up-zone to prevent transitional creep, especially of businesses into residential areas. So along the north side of the Post Rd, you can find R-7 sized lots in the R-20 zone.

    Further, the real problem is not with the concept, but the rules of application, particularly with regard to basements and attics. Applied rules turn most older 2.5 story homes into 4.0 story non-conforming structures, which really hurts a family trying to add a bath or bedroom.

    Add grade plane rules to compound the problem. The plan assumes flat land, and makes little allowance for rolling topography. A two story house on one side can appear as a five story structure to its down-slope neighbors.

    What is a reasonable alternative? Regulate bulk and height above the actual ground. Zoning rules on residential bulk start at 150,000 cubic feet.
    That would be a 47 x 90 footprint 35 feet high, for example as of right.

    Most towns factor in water, wetlands and steep slopes and deductions to build-out potential. Not Greenwich. All land counts the same.

  8. Trader Vic-
    That list has been available at P&Z for months. It lists every lot and its green cover percentage, and was the basis of the regulation, as to percent non-conforming in each zone by design of the rule. It was generated from the GIS.

    The list is conservative (meaning it overstates non-green coverage), and is the actual basis of requiring a new survey; i.e., if your lot on the list is more than 90% of the allowed non-green area, a new survey is required to fulfill the green coverage calculation.

  9. Off topic since it’s about green coverage rather than FAR.

    I supported green coverage as a transition out of FAR. Cos Cobber has commented previously on rational land use regulation: setbacks, bulk and height. Floor area is not an externally perceived value (meaning it’s inside the house and not visible to the neighbors.)

    The obvious solution is to void FAR and use coverage plus a reasonable above-ground bulk schedule with the heights restrictions already in place to replace the current code.

    The green coverage regulation is already transitional to this concept.

    RTM Land Use committee needs to get with the program. They could start as early as tonight. (N.B. They advise on budget – not regulatory schemes.)

  10. Cos Cobber

    Correct IS, you have a long memory.

    Any update on the proposed changes to the grade plane regs? I found those ideas far more destructive for property values than the newly passed green coverage regs. Under the proposed grade plane changes, anyone on a smallish lot in Cos Cob was about to be screwed if they dared to finish their basement as – depending on the slope – they would count the basement as not only towards your FAR cap, but also as the “1st floor” which means that in a 2.5 story zone, you’ll never be allowed to add a real second story. Ridiculous!

  11. CC-
    Next up on the hit list – May 1st – implementation of the new drainage manual. This one will be truly draconian, since drainage capacity and infiltration will have to complete with both septic capacity and green coverage.

    Nothing on the near-term horizon for eliminating basement garages or walkouts as a reasonable land use feature of residential use, a/k/a living.

  12. Anonymous

    I was doing some research into FAR after reading your comments. I went to your blog roll & started reading presentations by Michael Finkbeiner. In his 2011 discussion on Grade Plane, I am pretty sure the photograph he uses is of the lovely old stone home on Valley Road that you noted had recently sold. I recall people worrying that the new buyers would tear this charming home down — sadly Finkbeiner’s explanation of the land grade suggests that it is destined to the dust heap thanks to FAR. Under FAR, the basement is the house’s first floor bc it is built on a hill. Go to page 11-16. This PDF is so helpful in understanding this issue.

    Click to access Grade%20Plane-MWF-AC-20110429%20%28small%29.pdf

  13. Thanks anon for posting the Grade Plane presentation presented to the Board of Realtor’s meeting at Town Hall 4/29/2011 – by invitation if you please.

    As the title page indicates, this was a joint effort by Aris Crist, architect, and Michael Finkbeiner, Land Surveyor, to flesh out the analysis and diagrams put together by Deputy Town Planner, Katie Blankley.

    Crist and Finkbeiner were run out of Town by an angry mob of listing agents shortly thereafter.