There is a good chance that your house is nonconforming because of the minimum front setback. It may not seem like much of an issue, but it could cause a lot of problems if you decide to make renovations to your house.

In the past year, so many people have been in front of the Board of Adjustment requesting a variance to enlarge or improve their front porches that the City Council revised the zoning ordinance at its Tuesday, Dec. 19 meeting.

The problem is that the City Council’s revision will allow some people to improve their homes without going through the time, cost and trouble of appearing before the Board of Adjustment to ask for a variance, but it does nothing about the underlying problem.

The real problem is that Greensboro has a ridiculous ordinance for the minimum front setback for single-family residential zoning.

The minimum front setback is the distance of a house from the curb line or edge of the street in front of the house.

Up until 2010, it was 20 feet – a distance easy to measure and understand. Most homes in Greensboro were built with this or a similar minimum front setback.

In 2010, every piece of property in the city was rezoned with a new citywide zoning ordinance. The first time this zoning ordinance, called the Land Development Ordinance (LDO), was presented to the City Council, City Councilmember Mike Barber said the best thing the City Council cold do was throw the entire document into the trash can and start over. But, instead, the LDO was revised and revised and finally the City Council got tired of dealing with the LDO and passed it.

Unfortunately for homeowners, one of the nutty things left in the LDO was the minimum front setback for single-family residential houses.

The problem is that the minimum front setback in single-family residential zoning is not a set distance, like the minimum side setback or the minimum rear setback. According to the LDO, the minimum front setback varies from neighborhood to neighborhood, and even from house to house, because the minimum front setback in Greensboro is determined by measuring the front setback of the two houses on either side of the house in question and calculating the average. The average setback of the two houses on either side is the setback for the house in the middle.

Without actually going out and measuring the setback of the two houses on either side and the house in question, no one knows whether a house is conforming or nonconforming. But because most houses were built when the minimum front setback was set at 20 feet many houses, nobody knows how many residences are nonconforming.

If you live on a street with deep lots, the minimum front setback for your house could be 100 feet or more, which means if your house is closer to the street than that it is nonconforming, and a trip to the Board of Adjustment may be required before you can make major, or in some cases not so major, improvements.

Even the city has difficulty determining the minimum front setback under the current ordinance. For one new house, the city came up with three different minimum front setbacks. After the third, the property owners decided to build their home elsewhere, probably somewhere where the minimum front setback could be determined with a measuring tape and wasn’t dependent on where their neighbors had decided to build their homes.

But on Tuesday night, instead of fixing the problem by establishing a definite minimum front setback for houses in the single-family residential zoning, the City Council – on the advice of the Planning Department, which created the problem in the first place – passed an ordinance that will allow some people in nonconforming houses to renovate their front porches without having to go to the Board of Adjustment and request a variance.

This text amendment to the LDO comes at the request of the Board of Adjustment, which found itself dealing with people who wanted to improve their property by adding to or renovating their porches and who had discovered, when they applied for a building permit, that their houses had become nonconforming when the ordinance went into effect due to the placement of the two houses on either side. They discovered the city wouldn’t grant them a building permit without a variance, sometimes for what were minor improvements to their porch, like adding columns, when those improvements increased the size.

The Board of Adjustment, to its credit, almost uniformly granted these requested variances.

At one Board of Adjustment meeting when this was discussed, it was brought up that on streets that are straight, having all the houses set back the same distance from the street might make sense if you think all houses should look as much alike as possible, but on streets that curve, as many residential streets in Greensboro do, it doesn’t look uniform because the street isn’t uniform.

Also – as members of the Board of Adjustment noted when dealing with one of these requests for a variance to increase the size of a front porch – the ordinance doesn’t take into consideration the lot size. The Board of Adjustment had a request from a person whose lot was 100 feet deep when the houses that determined the setback for her house were 150 feet deep. When the builder constructed the house in question it made sense to move it closer to the street so the house would have a backyard. Under the previous ordinance this was perfectly legal because the house was more than 20 feet from the street. Under the current ordinance the houses with deeper lots made her house nonconforming.

What the City Council did without discussion was pass a text amendment to the LDO that doesn’t change the encroachment allowed for an uncovered porch or stoop, which is 5 feet with a maximum of 35 square feet. It is the same as it was in the previous zoning ordinance.

But the text amendment will allow a covered porch to encroach 10 feet into the front setback along the entire front of the house as long as it does not encroach into the side setbacks.

If anyone on the City Council had been interested, they might have asked what this does for a house that – due to the 2010 ordinance radically changing the front setback – already encroaches into the front setback.

Some houses, because of the current ordinance, already encroach 10 feet or more into the front setback. For some houses, because of this radically different front setback requirement, building a carport beside the house would encroach into the front setback.

The solution to the problem with people wanting to improve their homes, which because of the front setback requirements are nonconforming, is to make the houses conforming by changing the front setback back to 20 feet like it was when most of the homes were built.

If one person on a street decided to build their home much further back from the street because they have a deeper lot or because they like large front yards and don’t like backyards, it could make all the other houses on the street nonconforming.

This is simply a case of over regulation by the city. What the City Council did was put a bucket under the leak instead of repairing the hole in the roof.

But the City Council expressed no interest in the matter and simply accepted without question the solution proposed by the very people who caused the problem.

As the economy continues to improve, more building is going to be taking place in Greensboro, and this issue is going to become more of a problem. Putting a bucket under the leak isn’t going to fix it.