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Minimum Lot Size: What is it Good for? Absolutely Nothing.

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I recently wrote about some policy choices that would help remove restraints on the free market that are currently preventing the production of more affordable housing. This month, I would direct your attention to policy choice number three from last month’s column: the abolition of minimum lot sizes.
On the most basic level, minimum lot sizes are a function of zoning ordinances enacted by local governments across Virginia. In many zoning classifications, there is a minimum lot size. That, in turn, yields a specific density reflecting the policy choice being made in developing that specific classification. For example, a locality might have a zoning classification that calls for lots that are a minimum of 12,000 square feet. That yields a density of 3.63 dwelling units per acre. Minimum lot sizes can also be a function of proffered conditions in a zoning case.

Well, what I would propose is that we get rid of the minimum lot size in favor of using density alone as the guiding principle in how many lots are allowed to be created in the subdivision of a particular parcel. By definition, this would allow clustering by-right. This change could be in two forms. One would be a state law that prohibits zoning ordinances from requiring minimum lot sizes. The other would be a conscious policy choice by Virginia localities to not require minimum lot sizes in their zoning ordinance; they already have the discretion to do this under existing law.

Here is how this might work: let us assume there is a parcel with one-hundred acres that has been zoned in such a way as to allow ninety homes. Setting aside roughly ten percent for streets and other rights of way, that would average out to almost one acre per home. In this example, let us assume that the zoning on this parcel has a minimum lot size of 1 acre. Well, you know where this is going. The resulting community has one-hundred acres that contains ten acres of streets and other public rights of way and ninety acres of home sites.

Without the minimum lot size, however, the lots could be smaller. Assuming the availability of public utilities, you might see a community with lots on one-fourth of an acre. That would mean you have a community that is roughly thirty-five acres of homes and streets and sixty-five acres of undisturbed land.
Now, before we go forward, let me dispel some concerns about this idea.

First, this would not lead to a massive increase in the number of lots. To be fair, there could be a marginal increase that might come with gross density being used in favor of a minimum lot size. In our example above, a gross density of one home per acre would yield one-hundred homes instead of ninety because density, stated as a gross maximum, would drive the number of lots that could be created. But, the tradeoff is that rather than having all the land in the parcel incorporated into lots, any land left over could be put in a conservation easement, deeded to the homeowners’ association, left as a working farm or otherwise utilized in a similar manner.

In addition, the absence of minimum lot sizes would not in any way trump health and safety requirements driven by Virginia Department of Health regulations with regard to onsite septic systems. You cannot change science, and this proposal would in no way attempt to do so.
The benefits of abolishing minimum lot sizes accrue in several areas:

  • Consumer choice – In a free society, the types of home sites available should be driven by consumer demand, not choices that are the function of an artificially-imposed limit by the government. The principle that free people should have free choices goes far beyond home sites, and indeed it should be the first metric of any economic policy proposal in a free society.
  • Affordable Housing – Smaller lot sizes means lower costs for things like land clearance, streets and utility lines. That means lower costs for home buyers.
  • Environmental Benefits – By its nature, this proposal would yield more open space. That means less impervious cover, more filtration for runoff before it enters streams, less encroachment on wetlands and other important environmental features and more preservation of forests.
  • Agricultural Benefits – Under this system, a landowner could take the existing development rights on an agricultural parcel, cluster those lots and preserve the greater share of the land as a working farm. It truly presents an opportunity for family farmers to stay in the business.
  • Aesthetic Benefits – Take a look at some comprehensive plans from across Virginia. In a number of localities, one thing that jumps off the page is the desire to preserver rural character. Abolishing minimum lot sizes makes that possible, while also providing for future residential growth. Right now, many rural zoning classifications require the future growth to be low density, but on big lots. What if it were low density on smaller lots? That’s right; you preserve the rural character of the community.

In short, in a Euclidean-based zoning system, density should be the driving force, not minimum lot size. The perceived public policy benefits that are realized from zoning are all derived from the density and not necessarily the minimum lot size. Our public policies should reflect that.

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