Land Surveying: Setbacks And Why They Are Important

25 February 2016
 Categories: Construction & Contractors, Blog


When building a house, or even just constructing a fence or outbuilding on your existing property, you will hear the surveyor talk about setbacks. Setbacks exist for legitimate reasons and their aim is protection.

What Is a Setback?

A setback, in plain terms, determines how close a structure can be to any protected area. Common examples of protected areas are streets or roads, bodies of water, environmentally sensitive areas such as marshes and wetlands, and your neighbor's house.

Who Determines Setbacks?

Governmental authorities usually determine setbacks and enact ordinances to enforce them. For example, a state authority may determine the setback for buildings alongside an interstate highway, while town or city authorities would determine the setbacks for houses built in their municipality.

When Are Setbacks Most Commonly Used?

New construction is one of the most common uses of setbacks. A building, such as a home, must be set back a certain number of feet from the middle of the street it faces, or in the case of a corner property, from the streets on both sides. It must also be set back a certain distance from the property line between adjacent houses. Other common uses are:

  • to establish acceptable heights for buildings and structures such as towers and water tanks
  • to determine the legal placement of fences and walls between buildings
  • to determine the distances between structures and protected lands, such as how far out a dock can extend into a waterway or how far away from environmentally sensitive areas a home can be constructed.
  • to ensure that utility right-of-ways are not encroached upon

What Is a Variance?

A variance is a document allowing you to forego setback laws under unusual circumstances. For example, if you want to build a shed, but there is a stream running through your yard that restricts where you can place the shed, and that place is not within the property setbacks. In this case, your government authority can allow you a slight variance in the law to allow the shed to be built in that place. Variances aren't always possible, such as when it would encroach upon a utility right-of-way or wildlife sanctuary.  

If you are planning on building a home or making home improvements, you should hire a surveyor to measure and mark setbacks. He will also know all the applicable municipal ordinances you need to adhere to. His survey can be instrumental in gaining a variance or settling a property line dispute. Call a local professional property surveying company to learn more about what he can do for you.