Illegal Patio Covers Draws City’s Attention Q&A

QUESTION

“We just finished building a large patio cover in our back yard, when one of our neighbors complained about it to the city. Someone from the building department came by and said that the structure was illegal. He gave us notice that we have 30 days to either tear it down, or go through the planning and permit process to make it legal.

What gives the city the right to tell me what I can and cannot build? Since when do patio covers need permits, and why would we have to go through the planning process?” –  S.E., Pleasanton

ANSWER

Every municipality is required by law to have what is known as a General Plan; a detailed outline as to how it is to be developed and managed, in order to meet current and future needs. The General Plan addresses seven basic issues of how a city will be laid out, how traffic will move through the area, where parks, schools, businesses and open spaces will be located, and how such issues as noise and overcrowding will be controlled.

In order to enforce the requirements of the General Plan, a municipality adopts ordinances or laws that specifically detail what will be allowed in a particular area or zone of the city. Located in the municipal code, these “zoning regulations” are approved by the city council and reviewed and updated every five to ten years. Everyone can have input to this process, but it is usually the local planning department that oversees the development of the General Plan and controls its enforcement.

Zoning laws and city ordinances give a city the authority to determine what someone can and cannot do, to a particular piece of property. There are zoning laws that stipulate the shape, size, design, and color a building can be, where it can be located on a lot, and what type of accessory structures will be allowed.

In order to understand how these ordinances come into effect, it is important to look beyond an individual piece of property. I spoke with George Thomas, Building Official for the City of Pleasanton, who explained that when an area is first developed, the developer will meet with the city, and will negotiate what will be allowed for that particular group of homes. These agreements then become the basis for regulating what can occur in the development. “The city’s concern is the overall look of the development, how it affects roads and traffic, and how it will enhance the community. In this way, the city can preserve its character and charm, while allowing for growth and expansion,” commented George.

There are actually several different players that are involved in the planning and zoning process of any given city. Besides the city council, the planning department and the planning commission are the two most influential . The planning department is the governmental agency that oversees the enforcement of zoning. It can make suggestions and recommendations to the city council on whether zoning laws should be changed.

The planning commission on the other hand, is a group of private individuals, appointed by the city council, who can also make recommendations or changes to zoning and planning issues. If an individual wants to appeal a decision by the planning department, a hearing can be arranged with the planning commission to determine an outcome.

Zoning ordinances vary dramatically from city to city, and usually address accessory structures such as patio covers, particularly if they are over ten feet in height. From a code point of view, patio covers are considered to be roof structures that people can gather under. They must be constructed to sustain live and dead loads, and built to resist lateral movement. Patio covers have been addressed in the Uniform Building Code for over 35 years, and normally require the issuance of a building permit.

For the city to ask you to go through the planning department, I would assume that your patio cover is over ten feet in height, is not built as a conforming structure, or does not have the proper property line setbacks. Most cities require at least a five foot setback at the rear, and a three foot setback at the side property line. Violating property line setbacks can expose a property owner to liabilities in the event of the spread of fire, or damage that may occur because of the structure failing when people are near. The best way to handle this is to find out what is essential for a patio cover to be considered safe and code complying.

Home owners can protect themselves, and prevent this situation from occurring, if they check with the city building or planning department before beginning any constructing or remodeling on their homes. The staffs in these departments are more than willing to answer any questions a home owner may have regarding new construction or additions. Also, most municipalities have brochures and handouts that clearly outline what is required before a construction project is started.