The Bare Root

Landscape Design from the Bottom Up

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Building Guidelines: How to Begin

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Have you ever noticed that many house facades are aligned uniformly and that most neighborhoods have a consistency of house palettes? This is not your imagination. The alignment of the houses is called a setback and is the required distance that a building must be located away from the streets and from other structures. The similar house colors might be a result of a neighborhood Covenants, Conditions & Restrictions, called for short a CC&R.

In developing a master plan for your garden, you, and any professional landscape designer, landscape architect, or nursery specialist you hire, should carefully decide on your garden plans. Any hard- or softscape materials and designs such as terraces, fences, flower borders, swimming pools, hot tubs, tennis courts, and gazebos, must be built or planted according to your  county, city, or neighborhood association ordinances.imgres

Building setbacks are controlled by a planning department in your county, municipality, or even town. If you live in a town or city, setbacks are usually determined by the community’s building department.  Setbacks regulate outdoor construction such as how tall structures can stand and how close to your neighbor’s fence line they can be built. Ordinances apply to gardens as well—for instance, how much of the grounds can be covered by shade, how high fences can be, whether shade structures must be attached to homes or can be free-standing. And there are many more to be considered; why you’ll need to talk with someone before starting and read the fine print.

CC & Rs are the rules of neighborhood associations and can be quite strict. Some CC & Rs may limit house paint color choices, particularly for new planned or historic communities where uniformity might be desired. A rainbow of wild hues mixed together might look terrific and enliven the hilly streets of San Francisco, but in your little cul-de-sac of similar stucco homes, they might prove downright distasteful. Your neighbors may choose to paint their Mediterranean style home lime green or lavender!


CC & Rs can control neighborhood noise as well, by dictating times of day when homeowners can use their pool or power lawn mower. As it pertains to your garden design, CC & Rs may have rules about both hardscape and soft scape by regulating materials such as what types of rock you can use, the architecture of your structures—whether it can be Asian inspired in a Mediterranean-style neighborhood, and what tree and plant species you can plant. Most neighborhood associations insist you submit for approval a complete landscaping plan to scale detailing the elements you intend to incorporate. You may not find all the rules appealing, but that’s why you need to know this in advance—even before you move in!

For both setbacks and CC & Rs, there are fees for review of your plans and your plans must be approved before any building can be started. During construction, inspectors will be sent to your site to enforce the building permits, signing off on each phase of your project. You also need to know and observe community restrictions about installing underground utilities for electric, gas, and water lines for barbecues, lighting, and pool heating systems. A wildlife preserve bordering your site may also limit your landscaping plans to protect the native flora and fauna for current homeowners, as well as future generations, and the conservation of the land in general.

IMG_4983There are even more potential regulations to heed.  As examples, you may need a grading permit depending on how many cubic yards of ground you plan to move, while hauling permits are required when removing a large amount of soil or debris.  Constructing retaining walls higher than 6 feet requires structural calculations by a licensed engineer.  Raising poultry, bees, or other animals on your land may require a conditional use permit.  A shed for storage or a playhouse are considered accessory buildings that demand their own approvals.

As you now understand, there are many challenges to consider before you—or your garden professional–put your shovel in the ground. Proper planning is crucial before you do proper planting, so everyone is happy—most of all you, so you enjoy your site fully, but also your neighbors and community leaders.