Anne & Lars Build a House

Chapter 3: Constraints

It's good to know your limits. What will the town allow us to do on this lot? Where to begin? The first step is to find our parcel on the zoning map:

Sausalito zoning map

(Side note: At the bottom of this map, the zoning stretches well into Richardson Bay, an offshoot of San Francisco Bay. The platters and planners of early Sausalito envisioned the town extending in this direction via landfill, just as hundreds of square miles of Bay waterfront had been created since the mid-1800s. As recently as the 1960s, there were serious plans to fill the greater part of San Francisco Bay, such that it would become a river valley—as it was a mere ten thousand years ago, when sea levels were a few hundred feet lower. I once saw a tiny plot for sale in the waters of Richardson Bay. You couldn't build anything on it, but the bay is so shallow that you could probably take a walk on it at low tide without scuba gear.)

Anyway, we happen to be on dry land in the south end of town, in a zoning district called "R-2-2.5". The R stands for Residential, so we can live there. That's an excellent start. What else do we need to know? Quite a bit, as it turns out. Sausalito has many, many pages of development regulations. But for a house, it largely boils down to this table of site development standards in Chapter 10.22: Residential Zoning Districts:

Sausalito's residential site development standards

The original is almost as hard to read as this scan, but if you squint, you can just make out that the R-2-2.5 column is fourth from the left (the rightmost column in the zoomed-in part above). Those numbers define the limits that will apply to us. Percentages and fractions are relative to the lot square footage, so that's the next thing we need to know.

The real estate listing for our parcel says that it comprises 5850 square feet. I'm not sure where that number comes from. My calculation based on our survey comes out to 5886 square feet. (I think we should get credit for extra square feet since we're on a nearly 45-degree slope, but the town is unlikely to see the geometric merit in this argument.) Let's be conservative and use the smaller number, which leads to the following limits:

Minimum parcel size:    5,000 s.f.
Minimum lot width:    50 feet
Maximum density:    1 dwelling unit/2500 s.f. = 2 dwelling units
Maximum floor area ratio:    .65 = 3802 s.f.
Maximum building coverage:    50% = 2925 s.f.
Maximum impervious surface:    75% = 4387.5 s.f.
Minimum setback - front:    0 feet
Minimum setback - side:    5 feet
Minimum setback - rear:    15 feet
Maximum building height:    32 feet

This is all good news! Our parcel size is well over the minimum in size and width. With over 5000 square feet of lot area, we have room for not one but two legal dwelling units. A 3802-square-foot house is much larger than we want, even if we could afford to build it. Same for the building coverage of 2925 square feet. It is extremely unlikely that we'd want to cover 50% of the lot with anything, let alone impervious surface. (This turns out not to mean what you'd think -- any decking or paving counts, even gratings and gravel. This regulation might change soon, but in any case it's not a concern for us.) The setbacks should be easy to live with.

Building height is a topic unto itself. The written regulations regarding height limits -- with variations for uphill, downhill, and level lots -- go on for a mind-bending three pages. I won't torture you with the details. The basic idea is that you find the high and low spots where the house meets the ground, and measure the building height from the average of those elevations. We should be fine.

So we seem to have plenty of headroom under the regulations. In fact, that was a big draw for this property -- several places that we've considered over the years have been problematic in some way regarding these limits. You can always ask the town for a variance, if you've got the stomach and the pockets for a huge roll of the dice. We'd much rather ask the Planning Board for the absolute minimum of special treatment. They don't even have to approve your project if it follows all the rules!

(The other nice thing about being well under the limits is that if this whole project tanks and we have to sell the property, a developer could build a much larger and more profitable house than we plan to, which might make the land worth even more to him than we paid. Let's hope we don't have to find out.)

But we're not out of the woods yet. Literally. Trees and views create more constraints. Sausalito recognizes that the views are a big part of why people pay a lot to live here. You're not allowed to block someone else's view, particularly their primary view. If your plants start to get in the way, you're supposed to let the other party trim them appropriately. On the other hand, the town likes its wooded hillsides. So you're also not allowed to take down protected trees without permission from the town, including the ones on your own property.

At least the trees have a nice view

Well, our property is festooned with protected California oaks that block our own view! We are happy to give ourselves permission to cut them down, but the town might be less accommodating.

Another tree question arises from the town's requirement for two off-street parking spaces per dwelling unit. Currently there is no off-street parking for this property, and the strip of town land adjacent to the road has protected trees along its entire length. In order to provide any parking at all, we'll have to take down at least one of these trees. We have our eye on a tiny, scraggly oak at the lower end of the street.

We'll have to negotiate all this with the Trees & Views Committee. I'm not making that up.

There's also a historical aspect. If your house is more than 50 years old (and this one certainly is, though nobody seems to know by how much), the Historical Landmarks Board must weigh in on whether the house is historically significant to the town. If it is, we'll be prevented from making major changes to the exterior, unless we can demonstrate that restoration would constitute an unreasonable financial hardship, and even then the town could insist that we rebuild in the same form as the current house. For the kind of house we want, that would be a disaster. We have no reason to think that this house will be found historically significant, but until we get the HLB report, it's an outstanding risk.

Oh, and about that parking...since we're zoned for two dwelling units, we're seriously considering a rental unit to help with the monthly costs. That implies four off-street parking spots, even if the apartment is designed for one occupant. And each spot must be 9 feet wide by 19 feet long, even though we like small cars.

Even this parcel, which seemed so vast and roomy at first, starts to feel a bit confined. How might we find room for two dwelling units and four parking spots on a 45-degree slope with vehicle access on only one narrow, tree-lined edge, without blowing our entire miniscule budget on earthworks and retaining walls? Great question, reader! It's been the main focus of initial design work, which we'll look at in our next installment...