Grade plane explained or, why you can’t save that older house that just sold on Valley Road

By Mike Finkbeiner, surveyor, and Aris Crist, architect

Destined for the dustbin of history, thanks to our P & Z


Filed under Uncategorized

19 responses to “Grade plane explained or, why you can’t save that older house that just sold on Valley Road

  1. Anonymous


  2. TraderVic

    So do the new Regulations eliminate the old FAR idea? Or do we have both now? Quite confusing for this lay person!

  3. George W. Crossman

    I built a house that was more than 30% below the FAR in 1989 when the FAR was brand new. Without ever adding a stick the house was over the FAR by the time I sold it 17 years later. I think it’s time Greenwich residents take the town to court over the lost values. Why not? It is a clear act of confiscation.

  4. Fred2

    Looks like the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

    In my unprofessional 5min look at the presentation it seems that the intent was to prevent massive terra forming that vastly changed ground levels in order to play stupid zoning tricks. That would protect existing owners from having a taj-mahal built next door, or becoming the neighborhood sump for water because everyone else was regrading their properties.

    (Happened to family of mine, in another town, one property filled in a seasonal pond ( how this was allowed to happened is a mystery as it had been non-building FOR THAT REASON for 80 years, one of the Friday afternoon re-zoning specials) and other properties raised their ground levels without installing appropriate drains and the pond shifted into the my cousin’s yard and hitherto bone-dry basement. Nice lawsuit.)

  5. Cos Cobber

    Thank you gentlemen. That is a most excellent tutorial explaining a complex issue.

    I think this proposed change is the most destructive regulation ever conceived for homeowners in Greenwich, particularly those on lots less than 1/2 acre in sloping neighbors….which is perhaps 40% of the town. Prohibiting any increase in the grade plane (via fill) will force most all older homes to be leveled completely as walk out basements, garages and other features wont be able to be kept without unbearable sacrifice to the overall design.

    While the current regs make for some odd streetscapes via imported fill, the contemplated medicine from the P&Z to not recognize imported fill is far more damaging. Under this change, streets like Dandy Drive – which is well into a transition as existing housing stock of 50 years in age has been steadily replaced (as shown on slide 22) with new construction, will become frozen and locked in their current form, as a collection of old and new, all because the new rules will make it difficult to take the remaining odd, poorly draining, rocky and sloping lots and shape them into more useful, well draining and attractive spaces.

    Looking at my own section of Cos Cob, another area where slowly the 50-60 year old housing stock has been replaced, changing the grade plane rules now will leave us with a very odd streetscape with several new homes having made significant changes to their grade plan (wisely and attractively to address the coastal flood zone among other aesthetic reasons) and other lots as is w/o the benefit of making the change in the future. Our street needs to be allowed to continue to make the grade changes – over time, when the owner is ready – to improve the value of the land and to improve the neighborhood.

    My strong preference is to leave the rules as they are and if the town as the current regs help more than they hurt as oppose to the proposed regs which will hurt more than they help.

    If the town decides to pass something, then first I suggest that they limit the maximum change in grade plan from old to new (yikes, more survey $$) to something like a 2.5 foot change or they create special districts for the new rules such as Park Ave in Old Greenwich which is a level street where some homeowners have brought in fill to raise their yards a couple feet in order to help push rainwater off their flood prone lots (to their neighbors) and to squeeze in 9ft basements in a neighborhood also prone to a high water table. If the town is trying to address some interesting decisions made by builders in flood prone Old Greenwich, its proposed cure is highly punitive for the rest of us on sloping lots in Cos Cob, Pemberwick, Riverside, Greenwich proper, etc. If OG is the epicenter, then craft something for OG alone.

  6. Patrick

    Let’s look at the real driver behind this regulation – to prevent people from building houses that are too big relative to the size of the lot and neighborhood. This is primarily driven by aesthetics. When you drive in a neighborhood you want to see houses that are appropriate for the lot size.

    So let’s simplify the regulation so that we limit the footprint, setbacks and height of a house v. lot and limit and/or prevent any modifications to grade plane. If someone wants to finish off a basement or attic then what do we care? The house is still the same size from the outside if the attic is finished or not. If someone benefits from a sloping lot, then so be it. At least we don’t end up with carports, massive retaining walls, hanging additions and houses too big for their lots. Let’s just simplify this.

    Throwing another grade plane regulation at it will only complicate the problem further.

  7. Anonymous

    Crossman–that’s exactly what I said on another comment: it is absolutely a taking of property. Eminent domain? I would absolutely contribute to a fund that seeks to sue the city on this issue.

  8. Anonymous

    So does the act of finishing impact FAR? I was under the impression that unfinished attics, basements, etc count against FAR if they fit the definition to be included whether or not you nail up some drywall and throw down some carpet.

  9. Cos Cobber

    @anonymous 10:41 – unfinished attics and basements do not count against FAR…however when seeking permits from the town, if they notice that finishing the attic would put the property over the FAR limit they require that you make changes to the construction technique so that its not possible to finish the attic at a later date. Thats my understanding.

    Btw, finished basements dont count towards FAR provided you dont have a basement garage, walkout basement, very large basement windows or a low grade plane surrounding your home, if so then you open this very pandora’s box of grade plan regs.

  10. Shoeless


    A basement garage does not necessarily place it under FAR calcs, as long as the average exposed foundation stays under 3′. That obviously requires moving some land around, but does not instantly violate the regs. Walk out basements are another matter altogether.

  11. CC-

    The attic rule is perhaps the most bizarre of all. One now needs a structural engineer’s certification letter that if the truss elements of the attic framing are removed, the roof will collapse. Only in this circumstance does a truss design for the roof framing allow an exclusion from FAR. I swear I am not making this up.

  12. Look on the bright side

    would this new regulation lend a bid to properties with oversized (relative to zoning) lots?

    so even more of a premium for 2 acres in 1 acre zone, 10 acres in backcountry, etc?

  13. Cos Cobber

    Yep Shoeless, I am aware of that aspect of the basement garage…I omitted mention for brevity sake.

    IS, the P&Z’s approach to attics is so bizzare, its surprising there isnt more political pressure in this town to end this approach.

  14. Cos Cobber

    Looking at the Bright Side,

    the only upside on the proposed rule is that any house – such as an old tudor on Ridge Street in Cos Cob, will no longer have a duel value; as either a rehab or tear down…instead tear down will be the only choice because you’ll need to be able to reset the 1st floor elevation and dig a deeper basement hole in order to defeat the height and 1st floor designation rules (ie if too much basement wall is visible per the grade plane calc – the basement counts as a first floor).

    In short, the only upside is that it will drive down land prices…any leave streets such as Dandy Drive, which is in the middle of a transition, in the lurch as builders/homeowners will have less incentive to reshape and improve their lots.

  15. Patrick

    Agree that the act of finishing does not affect far. The point I believe is that the regulation motivates builders to build around regulations so that they can finish an attic or basement. Examples include:

    – ensuring the ceiling of an adjoining roof of a garage is less than 6ft 11inches so it can be used as a closet for a bedroom
    – creating a carport instead of a garage.
    – creating a room without windows or heat so it doesn’t count towards far
    – building large retaining walls to hide a basement
    – raising the land with fill to get egress windows in basement
    – builders putting in modulars so they can take out the town mandated engineered truses after they get an inspection

    All in an effort to beat the far rules. This creates buildings that are too big for the lot since footprint is not a consideration. Simplfy it and let people do what they want to do inside their houses You’ll end up with houses in proportion to their lots without creating massive drainage issues and eyesores

  16. Anonymous

    Do the rules impact renovating existing homes like 172 Valley? or just new homes?

  17. jeremy jones

    I agree with all the comments above (the first time i have EVER said that to a Chris Fountain blog reply page). The objectives seem, at face value, to be laudable – – limit the Taj Mahal being built on too small of a lot to maintain some level of aesthetic to Greenwich . . . However, like all government, they create a stupidly complex rule to address a pretty simple problem. They’re trying to limit the overall volume of housing. Great – limit the overall volume of house that can get built. Setbacks + FAR + volume. Done. Forget trying all this stupid math to figure out whether a jointed rafter counts, whether a 10-ft under grade plane basement counts, etc. That just seems like a full employment act to the bevy of tradesman who make their living bilking Greenwich residents out of money to address rules that the bevy of town salarymen review by making their living bilking Greenwich residents out of money. STOP. If they did, we’d have plenty of money to dig up the toxic sludge under our high school kids. (OOPS. Fodder for another post.)

  18. Patrick

    Well said Jeremy Jones