Too far? – Petition seeks repeal of Decatur floor area rule

Posted by Dan Whisenhunt February 19, 2014
Photo from the FAR rule petition on

Photo from the FAR rule petition on

A Decatur resident is urging people to sign a petition to repeal a “Floor Area Ratio” rule that the petitioner says hurts property owners.

Wylie Roberts says the rule puts unfair restrictions on property owners who want to renovate their homes. The petition asks the city to repeal the rule when it adopts its Unified Development Ordinance, an overhaul of the city’s zoning code that’s currently in the works.

The petition says, “The new FAR rule added in 2008 mandates that ‘total floor area’ also be no more than this same number of square feet, and garage space and accessory buildings must be counted. This means that a building footprint that covers 30 percent of a lot (very typical for existing one-story homes) would hit 60 percent if a full second floor were added, which exceeds the 40 percent FAR limit. In order to add a full second story, your building footprint would have to be no more than 20 percent of your lot square footage, which very few homes are.”

Roberts petition blames the rule on the “anti-development crowd” and accuses the city of enacting the rule in 2008 without any public input.

“Because of the far reaching impact to property owner’s rights, there should have been a referendum, which likely would have also been soundly defeated,” the petition says. “Instead, it was quietly adopted without most homeowner’s knowledge or ability to vote on it.”

To see the petition, click here.

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Dan Whisenhunt is editor and publisher of

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  • BerthaMaria


    In addition to creating a bifurcation in the city between those lucky home owners who renovated prior to the existence of this rule and those who did not (and who are stuck with smaller homes), the rule also creates a special class of people that get to exceed the limit with their basement, while those not on a lot with a slope and a basement (or who don’t already have a basement) must live with a much smaller home. You can see homes with twice the floor area of their neighbors, and three stories because an exception is made for basements. But if your home does not already have a basement, you can’t add one unless you tear it down and start from scratch. (Is this really what we want to incentivize? Believe me, some people will do this just to get a few extra bedrooms if they have to. Maybe even me with my brick bungalow on East Lake, since the rule prevents me from adding a full second story!)

    Instead of giving an exception to the limit for those with a basement, what should be done is increase the Floor Area Ratio to 80% for EVERYONE, and eliminate any language about garages or basements in relation to the Floor Area Ratio. This gives everyone a level playing field and ability to build a reasonably sized home; if you don’t have a basement, you can go upwards to get a comparable amount of space addition in a full second floor or using the space under the roof. (right now the rule makes it very unlikely the average existing home can be expanded to have a full second story, even though theoretically we can have up to 2.5 stories.) This would allow 30% on first floor (which most homes already have), 30% on the second floor, and another 20% for either attic usage or a garage. Right now the rule is set at 40% and you have to include garage space.

  • Wylie Roberts

    Lot Coverage Ratio = amount of square ft. covered by house or driveway as a % of total lot square footage. It is set at 40% max, and always has been. This prevents excessive water runoff during rain and allows water to be absorbed by soil.

    Floor Area Ratio = Total Square Footage of all enclosed space, on all floors, including an enclosed garage (except for basement space) as a % of total lot square footage.

    Most homes are between 20% and 35 % lot coverage with the foot print of the main structure. Very few if any are under 20%.

    So here is the problem:

    Very common in Decatur is a 30% footprint two story home with a basement and partial use of attic space with a dormer or two.

    This gives a floor square footage of 80% ( 30 for basement, 30 for first floor, and 20 for 2nd floor).

    But a home right next door with the same size foot print (30%) and no basement can’t even add a full second level or use any of the floor space under the attic.

    So the rule creates special classes of homeowners with different rights as far as size of home they can have. Which is inherently unfair, and why I am seeking for the FAR rule to either be eliminated or modified to give 80% to EVERYONE, inclusive of basement and garage.

    The irony is, that if square footage is so evil, without regard to lot coverage, why do we allow an exception for basements?

    If home A can have a basement, why can’t home B ,without a basement, have a comparable amount of space by adding a FULL second floor and/or using the space in their attic?

    If you want to know why so many of the beautiful old bungalows are being torn down and replaced by new construction (with a basement), it is because that is the only way to get a reasonable amount of home square footage, which the FAR rule otherwise prevents.

  • Elena.Liliac

    The FAR rule definitely goes to FAR!
    Is this what Decatur is really about?
    Creating privileged classes of people and other lesser groups?
    We need to fix this!

  • judgebrandeis

    The floor area rules were adopted 5 years ago. The intent was to prevent folks in smaller homes from being overwhelmed by a towering monstrosity next door. Why is this issue being raised only now, five years after the fact and in the midst of a heated debate over the proposed tree ordinance?

    • Wylie Roberts

      It’s being brought up now because the entire set of development ordinances are being reviewed as a part of the UDO.
      Most homeowners have no awareness of the FAR. If there had been a referendum 5 years ago that informed everyone that their allowable home size would be cut in half, I don’t think it would have passed. Instead, only those intimately involved in local politics were even aware of the issue. Given the dramatic taking of property rights, it should have either been in a referendum or at least a letter should have been sent to all citizens informing them of this potential legislation.
      The goal of the FAR is fine, but it needs to be tweaked so that it does not disenfranchise certain groups more than others, as it currently does.
      And ultimately, what is considered “a monstrosity” is a subjective matter. The homes on my street that already exceed the FAR limit are actually the most beautiful homes that give our street its wonderful character. It may make sense for certain areas of Decatur as it is written, but it is very unreasonable for other areas.

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