The word ‘setback’ can be defined two ways. Most of us are familiar with the setback which refers to a reversal or check in progress. Like when you are almost done getting your hair styled for your wedding, and your photographer wants to get a picture of your dress and hangs it on the hotel sprinkler valve, and all of a sudden the alarm goes off, and black watery fire retardant comes spewing out of the valve and covers everything in the room, including your dress. This would be a pretty serious setback. This also happened to my friend Kelly just last weekend. She handled it in stride, and four bridesmaids with serious elbow grease and 217 Shout Wipes later, it proved to be more of a hiccup.
The other type of setback, which relates a bit more to landscape design, is the distance from a property line to a structure. An offset. These distances are typically mandated by land use codes, intended to be a minimum allowable distance from a street, or stream, or property line, to a structure like a fence, wall, or your home.
Construction within a setback (i.e. within 4′ of your side property line, in Oakland) requires permission from your city, county or municipality. This adjustment to standard protocol is known as a variance. With some construction, like a vine arbor, a variance could be ‘over the counter’, and handled by the city building department in a few days. Other variances require neighbor notification and potentially, public hearings. The goal of these rules is maintaining standards within the municipality for construction. However, the rules do change over time.
Where at one point sheds or other small structures were permitted against rear and side property lines, typically a setback is now required. Fences may be constructed along property lines, but cannot extend all the way to the sidewalk, and front setbacks are usually quite a bit larger than side and rear setbacks. For example, I mentioned a 4′ setback from a side or rear property line in Oakland. The front yard setback is 20′. Even within municipalities or cities, defined setbacks aren’t always consistent. Neighborhoods defined as mixed use, or with a historical significance, may have different setback requirements and other construction specifications unique to those areas.
In some cases, especially in older homes, a survey may be beneficial to determine property lines and the corresponding setbacks, as fence lines can be misleading. More often then not, in cases where clients have had surveys done, we find that fence lines don’t follow the property lines, and in some cases can be many feet off. If you are thinking about a construction project, your designer can help you understand what setbacks and other rules apply in your neighborhood.