Portland's Broken Zoning Regulations
Throwing the Zone Out the Window
Portland’s Bureau of Development Services (BDS) publishes a guide to Zones.
Single Dwelling Zones specify that only one house can be built on a given amount of land. The most common zone for Portland neighborhoods is R5, or one house per minimum 5000 square feet. Certain areas either are, or should be designated R7, or one house per 7000 square feet.
Most people assume that these Zone regulations are enforced. However exceptions in the Zoning Code render them moot.
Regulations actually allow building a home on lots as small as 3000 square feet in an R5 zone, or 4200 square feet in an R7 zone.
Most residents don't realize that the Zoning Code allows an existing lot to be redefined, if there is a historical record of a previous lot line that runs through the property.
These are referred to as “underlying lots” or “lots of record”. They are not the properties that exist today, but usually are based on lots drawn on original planning or “plat” maps in Portland’s early years when rural land was first being converted to streets and blocks to form our neighborhoods. The actual lots that were later sold and built on and now are the basis for tax lots were often quite different than those depicted on the original maps.
The Zoning Code permits elevating the archaic dormant lot to legal status and splitting an existing lot along one of its boundaries, so long as at least 50% of the "underlying" lot is on the actual tax lot. The lots can be smaller than what the Zone should allow.
The developer's application process for doing this is simple.
No More Backyard for You!
Portland’s many unique neighborhoods give our city its character. Each neighborhood has its own look and feel. Neighborhood identity is heavily influenced by the types and placement of buildings, trees, and green space. Planning regulations should reflect this.
Currently, they do not.
There is a one-size-fits-all approach to the minimal design standards in the Zoning Code. For example, with the exception of the front of the house, the other walls can be built as little as 5 feet from the property line. This is an example of what is called a "setback" requirement and is applied city-wide. There are exceptions in the Code that permit even smaller setbacks.
Oftentimes, an original house targeted for demolition has a nice back or side yard. Yards enhance the neighborhood, provide protected space for children and pets, enhance privacy, provide a place for gardening and landscaping adding to the city’s overall green footprint, and generally improve the quality of life in the neighborhood. In fact section 33.110.235 of the Code states the following:
The required outdoor areas standards assure opportunities in the single-dwelling zones for outdoor relaxation or recreation. The standards work with the maximum building coverage standards to ensure that some of the land not covered by buildings is of an adequate size and shape to be usable for outdoor recreation or relaxation. The location requirements provide options for private or semiprivate areas. The requirement of a required outdoor area serves in lieu of a large rear setback requirement and is an important aspect in addressing the livability of a residential structure
However, the Code only pays lip service to this concept as it goes on to define a minimum standard of only 250 square feet for side and back yard so long as at least one 12’ x 12’ square will fit somewhere in the yard space. This is quite small and still permits backyards as little as 5 feet deep. Although this might seem reasonable in some densely populated parts of the city, in most neighborhoods, it means that developers can build lot-busting houses with small yards, even if the neighborhood supports much greater outdoor space and separation between houses.
In addition, many of these houses are excessively tall, built out of scale with their surroundings, and often block sunlight from reaching their neighbors’ yards, intruding on their quality of life.
Why do developers do this? It maximizes the square footage of the houses. Bigger houses sell for more money. If the project involves building multiple replacement houses, they all need to fit on the original lot. The building footprint expands and yards go away. Buildings becomes tall and the sunlight goes away.