Legal non conforming zoning help

2 Replies

Hi everybody,

My name is Joe and I'm new to biggerpockets and I just love the info that's available on this website. So that said, I'm buying my first house in Jersey City which is a 2 family house and I just got the appraisal and it mentions that the house is a R2 zone. Right after that it says that it's a legal non conforming (grandfathered use). I like the house because it sits on a large lot (42 X 90)
and my thinking is one day I might be able to convert it something bigger, say a four family or more. My concern is that a legal non conforming use someday, might limit or even detract from what I can do with the property.
How do I know what my limitations are?

Thank you in advance

@Joseph Berdugo you'll never be able to convert it into anything more than what it is now since it's already non conforming use.  Maybe just a 2 family in a single family zone.  Maybe you can expand it based upon modern set backs (how far away you need to keep from property lines in all directions) and lot coverage, but that's really it sorry to say from what I understand. 

That being said your realtor should have told you this when you were purchasing it, if the question ever came up. 

@Joseph Berdugo

Disclaimer: I'm in no way a zoning expert, but I've read my share of zoning reports and requirements.

Legal non-conforming is pretty common around here, given the historic nature of most development in Jersey City. Most of the city was developed prior to modern zoning standards.

Do you happen to know the grounds on which the structure is non-conforming?

In Jersey City, R-1 is the designation for 1- and 2-family structures. (R-1A and R-1F also exist.) R-2 is the designation for multifamily up to four stories, which can allow for more than two units.

The reason for my question above is that nonconformance can vary in nature. While I'm not sure whether or not an appraiser would take this into account -- which may be what @Darren Sager is insinuating -- technically speaking, a property can be nonconforming based on a variety of characteristics:

  • Use -- think commercial vs. residential OR single-family vs. multi-family
  • Setbacks -- if that zoning district requires a minimum setback of 10 feet from the property line on either side, and one side is only 5 feet from the property line, that can be grounds for nonconformance
  • Parking -- the property may not meet the minimum parking requirement for its zoning
  • Lot Coverage
  • Building Height
  • Density

My point is, various factors can trigger nonconformance. Again, disclaimer -- I'm not an expert -- but if your intent is to keep this as a 2-family dwelling, you should be safe based on your legal nonconforming status.

Another element to this is the rebuildability. Where this comes into play is in the event of significant destruction to the property (i.e., fire). Not sure what JC's stance on this is, but municipalities typically have a threshold at which point the property can be rebuilt to its prior existence regardless of nonconformance. In some places, even if the property is completely destroyed (100% loss), the building can be rebuilt to what it was previously even if the structure was previously nonconforming. In others, you may only be permitted to do so if the damage sustained is considered less then a 50% (or 75%) loss. If the damage eclipses this threshold, the property must be rebuilt to today's zoning requirements.

Lastly, while zoning requirements are requirements, it's not unheard of to receive a variance. For example, if you had unfinished ground level space at your property and are sitting on a large lot in an area where 3- and 4-family properties are prevalent, the zoning board may consider a variance to allow you to add another dwelling, provided you adhere to certain additional requirements (providing sufficient points of egress, adding a sprinkler system, etc.). Know that this will be time intensive and expensive, and I would not buy anything with the assumption that you'll be granted a variance. Could be a nice bonus if you're willing to put forth the effort, though.

If you have any other questions, I'm happy to take a stab at them. Don't hesitate to reach out to the city's zoning office either; they can be helpful.

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