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City Reverses Long-Standing Prohibition on Development of Substandard Lots
March 30, 2003

In an about face that caught many by surprise, the Richmond City Attorney's Office has issued a series of legal opinions that essentially gut the decades-old prohibition on development of substandard lots where multiple lots small lots are under a single ownership.

Richmond Municipal Code Section 15.04.940.030.A.3 (part of the "Zoning Ordinance") states:

"Nonconforming Lots. Where a lot is less than 50 feet in width or where a lot of less than 5000 square feet exists and said property has been recorded under separate ownership from all adjacent lots continuously since January 31, 1949, and the lot is level (having an average longitudinal and cross slope of less than 5%), such lot may be developed into any use permitted in the base zoning district. Exceptions to this are as follows:

a. Any such lot that is 3300 square feet or less in area, and/or is 33 feet or less in average width shall constitute a residential building site lot not to exceed 1 single-family unit.

b. Any such lot that exceeds the dimensions and area enumerated in (a) immediately above, but which is 3700 square feet or less in area, and/or is 37.5 feet or less in average width shall constitute a residential building site lot not to exceed 2 family dwelling units.

In ordinary English, what this means is that if a person owns two adjacent substandard lots (say 25 x 100), they have not been considered individually developable.

The City Attorney says that this is in conflict with state law, and that the limitation on not more than 5% slope is also constitutionally unreasonable. The ruling also clarifies that combining multiple lots under a single parcel number for tax purposes does not constitute a “merger.” In fact, it is unclear what act would actually constitute a merger, because nobody has ever done one.

City officials have pressed for this in order to free up for development many of the narrow lots in Richmond’s older neighborhoods. The effect will probably be to increase the density in many older neighborhoods, including Point Richmond and much of the Richmond “flatlands.”

Under the principles of "Smart Growth," this is not necessarily a bad thing, but for many who enjoyed a little space between themselves and a neighbor, there will be some disappointments.