Rules to Build a Dream On

Tips from a Development Consultant

Walt Disney is often misquoted as having said, “If you can dream it, you can do it.” Well, when it comes to property improvements, that statement just isn’t true. It would be more accurate to say, “If you can dream it, and it conforms to local regulations, or you can get the jurisdiction to make an exception, then maybe you can do it.”

Development consultant Karley Frankic has built a career helping people to navigate their dreams through the regulations. Over the years, she has noticed certain areas where dreams regularly collide with the rules.

In a society that genuflects to the automobile, she finds people frequently get overzealous in their desire for off-street parking. While even a vague appreciation for natural beauty – or at least for drainage requirements – would seem to prevent it, some property owners pave over their entire front yards. Not only is this ugly, it’s usually against the law. If a neighbor complains, the city could force the property owner to tear out his cement garden.

Cluttering up a yard with additional buildings is also a no-no. Frankic says building a guest house for the proverbial mother-in-law could run afoul of rules that prevent more than one primary use on a single lot of record. In historic neighborhoods, ancient servant quarters are a fairly common feature, but “you can’t put them in new,” Frankic says.

So why not just build an addition to the existing building? Not so fast, Frankic says. Setback requirements place limits on how close to the property line you can build, and thereby how far you can extend the footprint of your home.

In historic New Orleans neighborhoods, this is a particular problem, since many existing buildings do not conform to the setback requirements put in place decades after they were built. As a result, even to rebuild on a pre-existing footprint, you might need to apply for an exception to the rules. “Because the zoning code in New Orleans is so arcane – it’s basically 1970s suburban – you often need a variance,” Frankic says.

If you can’t expand horizontally, why not vertically? Why not build an extra floor for that mother-in-law? Fine and dandy, unless you run afoul of the height requirements, which the extra floor very well might.

Height is also an issue when it comes to fences. Frankic says people love to erect 8-foot (or taller) fences, to enhance their privacy. Typically, she says, fences should be no taller than 6 feet.

Of course, zoning being what it is, the rules depend to some extent upon which “zone” you live in. The rules are set forth in the local zoning ordinance. Some areas may also be subject to decades-old development covenants that set specific rules for driveways, the positioning of improvements on lots and where fences can be placed.

On top of that, New Orleans imposes specific preservation rules within various historic districts. The Historic District Landmarks Commission oversees an array of old neighborhoods, such as Faubourg Marigny, Algiers Point, the Warehouse District and the Irish Channel. The Vieux Carré Commission, which has more stringent rules, oversees the French Quarter. “A lot of people don’t realize that they are in a historic district, and what it means to be in a historic district,” Frankic says.

Broadly speaking, what it means is that you don’t get full discretion in deciding what the outside of your house looks like. Your improvements should be in keeping with the historic architectural style of the dwelling and not detract from the tout ensemble of the neighborhood. Want to chuck that slate roof into a dumpster and slap on a shiny tin roof? That might be frowned upon. Want to replace louvered shutters with Bermuda storm shutters? Maybe not. Want to sheath the balcony of your 1830s porte-cochere townhouse with 1950s-style cheese-grater aluminum screening? Not bloody likely.

Window replacements and solar panels can be tricky, Frankic says. But a rough rule of thumb for modern upgrades is that if they can’t be seen from the street, you’re OK.

The approvals all of this entails may seem intimidating, and even frustrating. But Frankic advises that renovators avoid taking it out on bureaucrats. “Be nice when you go to City Hall,” she says. “You get more bees with honey than you do with vinegar.”

She also strongly advises hiring licensed, reputable contractors. When in doubt, ask the contractor to show you the permits. “The majority of the people seeking waivers after the fact blame the contractors,” Frankic says.

And if there’s one thing worse than a dream deferred, it’s a dream undone at great expense. So if you can dream it, first figure out if you’re allowed to do it, and then do it right.

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