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  • Writer's pictureBob Barnett

Zoning for Home Additions in South Orange & Maplewood, NJ

Whether you are considering a substantial home addition, new garage, deck, pool or even a small patio, the zoning ordinance or your NJ municipality has rules/laws governing the size and location of these projects. Zoning ordinances are not so specific that they would say, “Homeowner at 35 Walker Street is allowed to build a 250 sq ft. addition on the rear of his home." That’s where a zoning analysis comes in.

Each municipality is different, ranging from rural areas where only state/county-wide ordinances may exist to very complicated ordinances of cities. The following is a general outline of the steps involved with a zoning analysis – you may be able to do this yourself or you may require the services of an architect. In this age of increasing DIY activities, it is your call if your municipality allows it. Your zoning officer may be amenable to a meeting to discuss your potential project.

The first step in the zoning analysis is to secure an official property survey. This often accompanies the reams of paper associated with a home mortgage and is generally a requirement of the title company. The survey should have a raised or printed seal by a NJ licensed surveyor, a specified scale (such as 1” = 30’) and should not be reduced or enlarged by photocopying. It should show the property boundaries, the home footprint within the boundaries, and measurements indicating distances from the home to the boundary edges. The survey should be current - reflecting the current state of your property. If your home has a deck, garage, etc. that is not on the survey, your survey is not current. If you are not able to locate your property survey, check with the Building/Zoning office of your municipality – they may have a survey from a prior permitted project. If you are still unable to locate a survey, you will likely need to have a survey done by a licensed surveyor.

Second: determine your property’s zone. For municipalities with zoning ordinances, the municipalities have divided up their properties in separate zones, with each zone having rules and regulations for how the property is to be used. Residential zones often start with the letter “R”. Some municipalities provide their zoning maps online; others may only have maps available for viewing or for purchase at their building/zoning offices. Here are the Zoning Maps for South Orange and Maplewood:

Third: determine the rules associated with your particular zone. The rules are set forth in the zoning ordinance. This can be a lengthy process depending on the complexity of the zoning ordinance. Many municipalities have created easy-to-read tables of "bulk requirements or regulations" which summarize much of the ordinance information. Below is a section of Maplewood's Bulk Regulations:

Typical zoning rules for single-family homes include: Lot Area, Lot Width, Lot Depth: These are guidelines for the properties, generally used when creating a new property such as in a subdivision; existing properties are (of course) grandfathered in to their current property limits. Set-backs: Front, Rear, and Side Setbacks are distances between the Front/Side/Rear of your home and the respective property lines. Oftentimes setbacks are a specific distance (ft) but may also be a percentage of another length (e.g. side yard setback total may be a percentage of a lot width). If you own a corner lot, the setback rules can be confusing. Generally, a corner lot has two front yards, two side yards and no back yard, with corner lot regulations spelled out in the ordinance. Lot Coverage generally means impervious coverage or areas where rain would not go through to the soil below, such as a building, a patio, a driveway, etc. While it may seem that this law exists for aesthetic reasons (to avoid people from completely paving their entire property), it actually exists for flood control. When rainwater can’t percolate into the ground, it runs off as storm water – without proper lot coverage adherence, even minor rains would create major flash flood events. The recent flooding resulting from Hurricane Ida has created a lot more focus on this. Building Coverage generally means roofed coverage; in some municipalities, this may include decks. This ordinance is in effect to limit over-building/construction. Floor-Area-Ratio (FAR) includes not only the area on a particular level, but also the living areas on multiple stories. Every municipality specifies what is considered to be part of the floor area. Is a garage included? Is a screened porch included? an attic/basement? The answers should be in the zoning ordinance. South Orange and Maplewood do not have FAR requirements,

but Summit and other towns do. Height includes a vertical distance (ft.) as well as number of stories. The point at which the height is measured may be defined as well – often from an “average grade plane” which would come in to play for homes on sloped lots. Accessory Buildings (garages, sheds, etc.) will likely have their own set of rules. Some jurisdictions require a certain distance between accessory buildings and primary buildings.

Fourth: review your ordinance’s definitions. When I was new to the profession, it seemed that the definition section was superfluous. However, a careful review of the definitions is critical for correct interpretation of the zoning ordinance. In particular, the definition of words/phrases like “attic", "basement", "story", "habitable space", "garage", etc. may be defined differently by different ordinances. These definitions articulate critical information germane to the ordinance interpretation.

Fifth: review your own property survey to determine the existing conditions with respect to the zoning ordinance. Are you over an existing setback? You may not be able to build a second story above the overage area, despite the existing structure being grandfathered at the ground level.

Sixth: determine the expandable or buildable area - this is the difference between what you are starting with (existing conditions) and what you are allowed to build up or out to (the Bulk Regulations for your residential Zone). If you need more space than your property legally allows, you may be required to seek relief from the zoning ordinance via a zoning variance.

Here is completed Zoning Analysis table we did recently. We typically highlight areas for possible expansion with green, signifying "room to grow"; areas that are currently over the limit (setback or lot/building coverage) are designated in red indicating that expansion in these areas would likely require a variance.

Many thanks to my go-to variance officers Len Mendola in Maplewood and Greer Patras in South Orange for their continued help to me and my clients.

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