House with big yard.
House with big yard.

Jim Dalrymple, a Salt Lake City journalist, publishes the About Town blog, where he opines about urban land use in the Provo-Salt Lake City region of Utah. I’ve begun following the blog because he asks many of the same kinds of questions I do, informed by similar free-market sensibilities.

In a recent missive, he asked what’s so great about yards? “Most cities, including those in Utah, have vast tracts of land zoned to require yards.” But yards are just one amenity associated with housing. While some people may value yards, he says, others may value bigger closets, larger kitchens or cable TV. Or, I might add, they might prefer smaller yards but greater access to biking trails and public parks.

Indeed, some people might prefer not to have a yard at all. Yards take time and effort to maintain. Lawns must be mowed, leaves raked and bushes pruned — time that could be devoted to mountain biking! Yards also consume water and fertilizer, an offense to anyone with an acute environmental consciousness.

Concludes Dalrymple: “It makes no more sense for governments to require yards than it does for them to require people to buy other amenities.”

Bacon’s bottom line: Zoning codes that mandate minimum lot sizes — in other words, minimum yard sizes — create a mismatch between peoples’ preferences and what the real estate market provides. Many people wind up spending money for something they don’t even want. And local governments wind up paying more to provide services to a population smeared over a larger geographic area. Here’s a radical idea: Why not just let developers and home builders create housing product that meets the market demand?


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30 responses to “The Folly of Mandated Yards”

  1. Breckinridge Avatar

    Uh, you don’t think the developers and homebuilders had a hand in writing the zoning codes and setting the lot size? Betcha they did…. And what makes you so sure the market is not demanding large lots? Many buyers want the spacing from the street and their neighbors.

    But I am curious — to they require YARDS? Do they prohibit trees, areas of natural growth? In Colorado that might be prairie and in Scottsdale that might be desert and cactus — but maybe not much grass.

  2. My understanding is that the move to mandated large-lot development was driven by a misguided attempt to manage growth and development. Lot size was used as a tool to limit growth and all the expense entailed by that growth. It was not driven by developers, who would prefer to put more lots on a tract of land, not fewer.

    1. reed fawell III Avatar
      reed fawell III

      I generally agree. Developers typically build what they can get away with. Those who control land use in an area have typically used lot size to protect their neighborhood from change or dilute that change as best they can.

      But the values of past zoning actions rise and fall as circumstances change. What enhanced value 50 years ago can do the reverse today – thwart opportunity, or do positive harm. How to we change what’s now in place after decades of sprawl over immense spaces. This major challenge may come a lot sooner than we think. At the moment most of us don’t even see the problem. Indeed, we’re focused mindlessly on enlarging it.

  3. DJRippert Avatar

    Don’t communities use large lot size requirements to dampen population density? If you let developers build high density building then you’d need to expand the roads as the condos and apartment buildings get built. In Virginia, that seems like a recipe for disaster. The developers would build the high density buildings but the state wouldn’t build the expanded roads. The going rate for an expanded road in Virginia is two Rolexes, a catered Thanksgiving dinner and a shopping spree in NYC for the wife or significant other.

    We have a state government that controls the roads and refused to acknowledge the existence of inflation in road building for 24 years.

    Letting developers build whatever they want wherever they want might work in a state with a competent state government. It would be an unmitigated disaster in a place where The Imperial Clown Show in Richmond manages the state’s transportation system.

  4. Breckinridge Avatar

    Large lots are expensive. Houses on large lots are expensive. People of modest means cannot live there. Birds of a feather like to flock together. SOMEBODY was pushing for the lot sizes.

    But I would agree, in some instances minimum lot sizes were adopted by government as a conscious effort to limit the number of houses, limit population density, and in some of those instances the developer/homebuilder communities were pushing for subdivisions they could make work economically.

    But I thought you were complaining about rules requiring grass. Yards. Again, the large lot can be wooded, natural, and not require watering or chemicals! The five acre minimums are often wooded areas.

    1. I equated “large yards” with “large lots.” Lot size is zoned in Virginia. I’m not aware of any jurisdiction anywhere that zones “yard” size.

      As you rightly point out, large lots don’t necessarily translate into large yards. Sometimes, home builders preserve the trees. But quite often homebuilders clear the lots, lay down a lot of sod, and plant a few saplings.

  5. developers are “required” to build large lots and that’s why we don’t see townhouses and 1/4 acre homes?

    what kind of a problem do we have when someone makes the claim – or strongly implies that because we DO SEE 5 acre lots and the assertion is that govt “requires” large lots?

    the real reason you see 5 acre lots is because they are NOT served by water/sewer and usually require septic tanks – and wells and separation between the two.

    septic tanks and wells do not do well in closer proximity usually. Most 1/4 acre subdivisions and smaller are served by water/sewer out of necessity.

    nothing really prevents a developer from building their own water/sewer facilities and charging fees – except one important thing – profit motive so often you’ll not see them except for “resort” type gated communities and if you know anyone that lives in one of them – it’s not cheap and it’s not particularly wonderful. water/sewer are not simple, cheap things.

    yes… that nasty old lesser known, govt entity known as the health department simply will not allow you to build a drainfield that sits 50 feet from your well or your neighbors well but don’t let little realities like this interfere with the “govt won’t let you” narrative …. that seems necessary to “explain” why large lots are “required” to be developed.

    and let’s be clear – a home on 5 acres requires enough soil to “perk” then in addition it requires 10-20K worth of owner-built drainfield as well as 10-20K of drilled well – quite a bit more than one would pay for a townhouse served by municipal water/sewer…

    and .. on the big lot – if/when the well or septic field “fails”, you pay again to build the replacements. No govt will help you and if your land no longer will support a conventional drainfield – life gets even more complicated.

    the private sector does not like to build privately-owned water/sewer; they much prefer for it to be built by local govt and then they can hook up to it – for a lot cheaper.

    Unfortunately – for developers – local govt cannot afford to provide water/sewer – everywhere… and don’t.

    that means the land beyond the reach of govt-provisioned water/sewer is pretty much required – not by the nasty zoning nazi’s but by the health-dept nazis to not allow cesspools that contaminate wells that in turn harm people.

    that’s the reality that is often not dealt with by the “govt is restricting development” folks.

    we can never get to a reasonable discussion of these issues if we keep pretending a reality different from the actual.

  6. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Forgive me, it’s been years since I took that college logic class but here it is Bacon-style:

    Land use should be established by free market principles. People should be free to live in the style and type of house they want and can afford.


    That style should be dictated by the principles of Ed Risse.


    The housing should be in multi-family units with little if no yards not far from the center of a city near public transportation and bike paths.


    No government entity should dictate these policies. Everyone should live wherever they want and in what they can afford.


    There must be “smart growth” policies applicable.


    No planning commission or EPA or board of supervisor or state or Barack Obama should dare tell people where to live and what to do.


    They have to live in multi-family units in smart-growth-planned areas in infil part of town.


    Some people might want to live on large lots with lots of trees and lawns. To do that, they might want to live in areas with septic tanks and not public sewage. Therefore, they need lots large enough to perk and handle septic fields.

    (on the contrary)

    No they don’t. They really want to mountain bike and not mow grass or garden! Besides, septic tanks and lawn fertilizer are environmentally unsound!


    People should live where they want with no government intrusion. Let capitalism rule! The free market is the most efficient way of distributing goods and services!

    (on the other hand)

    Ed Risse might not approve. Hmmmm.

  7. Dead On Peter! it’s a contradictory perspective.

    the Liberals make no bones about it – they’d have the govt control it.

    Ditto Ed Risse – he’d clearly have the govt deciding.

    but JimB’s view seemingly cannot decide whether govt should perform that role or the private sector should do what the unfettered free-market wants.

    and Reed’s view is even harder to fathom… he seems to blame govt monolithically for all the evils that we suffer.

    it’s like they cannot reconcile the purpose.. the legitimacy of govt when it comes to settlement patterns.

    do we really expect the free-market to generate functional settlement patterns?

  8. Lot sizes are related to set-backs between houses. Many people like some degree of separation between their house and the next door neighbors. Being able to see your neighbor sitting in his boxers watching TV is not desired by many. People with larger lots generally pay more for their house than they would for the same house on a smaller lot. What’s wrong with that?

    Much of Great Falls is not served by sanitary sewer and many residents fight any proposal to extend it. Why? Because the availability of sewer allows for smaller lots. You don’t need a septic drainage field. What’s wrong with that?

    At the same time, people can live in townhouses, apartments and condos if they want to live closer to others and experience the amenities often found in more dense areas. What’s wrong with that?

    And all these options are made available through a Comp Plan and a zoning ordinance. What’s wrong with that?

    Protecting people’s expectations about their neighborhood is important. What’s wrong with that?

  9. re: what’s wrong.

    well.. what’s wrong is the narrative that these are not available choices and that government is restricting choices to large lots.

    nothing at all wrong with the reality that the govt allows all the options and the free-market works to provide what customers want.

    what’s wrong is the claim that Govt is ‘restricting’ the options…

    but I digress….. and committing the unforgivable sin of messing up
    perfectly good anti-govt rants…..from folks with agendas….even if they are bogus as blue bananas…

    the failure of functional settlement patterns – has got to be somebody’s fault and the obvious miscreant is “government”.

    we now return you to your regularly scheduled blather…

  10. reed fawell III Avatar
    reed fawell III

    Larry – has a bee gotten under your bonnet? Is that what’s wrong?

    1. nothing wrong Reed.. got a low tolerance for anti-govt, partisan blather spouted instead of relevant remarks.

      1. reed fawell III Avatar
        reed fawell III

        Well, I guess you will just have to suffer through it, Larry. I know that can be very hard for those such as yourself who are dependent upon the enforcement of Top Down Centralized Government Control to insure that other people follow the dictates of your great wisdom and experience.

        1. Oh I’m not “dependent” on it Reed – I just recognize it as the reality – no matter my personal views of the correctness of it.

          you have to recognize realities guy – it’s loony tunes to pretend something else.

          you don’t like top-down centralized-govt but the simple reality is that’s how the country was set up from day one.

          I’m not “suffering” from that reality. I’m suffering from wacko bird parallel planet blather.

          1. reed fawell III Avatar
            reed fawell III

            “what do you think the SATs are if not top-down, centrally- managed?

            It’s what the founding fathers put in the Constitution – an elected govt that would centrally-manage the country including the military.

            I’m not “suffering” from that reality. I’m suffering from wacko bird parallel planet blather.”

            I agree totally, Larry. Wish I could help.

          2. Reed – the govt is designed explicitly to be top-down and centrally-managed.

            you can disagree with that on a philosophically basis but to deny it as the reality is pure wacko-bird.

            re: “wish I can help”.

            you CAN help by being a reasonable human being when you comment instead of one of these wacko-birds that just cannot deal with the realities.

            You’re wanting a world here – that does not exist – and it was never intended to exist – by the forefathers.

            You’re arguing essentially that one-man-one-vote to elect a govt is wrong.

            that’s wacko-bird guy.

  11. DJRippert Avatar

    Roads are not free market items. They are generally public property often taken through eminent domain. The free market does not generally build roads, the free market does not generally maintain roads and the free market cannot take property through eminent domain.

    The primary goal of zoning should be to match the population density to the government’s willingness to build and expand the transportation system. However, in Virginia we have two governments who each take their piece of the pie. The state government is supposed to manage transportation and the local government is supposed to manage land use. In reality, both suck out loud at their jobs.

    Local government will approve pretty much anything that developers want. After all, they have their hands deeply into the developers pockets. State government is hopeless. The quarter century long transportation funding debacle proves that.

    In Great Falls nobody likes or wants septic tanks or wells. However, it’s the lack of public water and sewer that keeps the Fairfax County BoS at bay. You can’t increase density so the existing roads are fine. Everybody knows what would happen if there were public water and sewer – the BoS would approve endless high density development without a single thought given to transportation. The state would stare slack jawed and glassy eyed at the endlessly snarled traffic saying clever things like, “Taint gonna pay fer no NoVer roads.”

    Buildable, one acre lots sell for between $500,000 and $1.25M in McLean. So, how much do you think my 7+ acre lot in Great Falls would be worth if it were zoned for 10 – 15 homes (instead of the one house it is currently zoned for)?

    Water and sewer into Great Falls would make a lot of its residents a lot of money. It would make me a lot of money. But I won’t support it. There has to be somewhere in Virginia where the citizens are able to put the back of their hand across the faces of our corrupt political class. Metaphorically speaking, of course.

  12. re: ” …. the free market does not generally maintain roads and the free market cannot take property through eminent domain.”

    actually they can for some things. most pipeline and other natural resource and private sector utility corridor companies have the right to use eminent domain.

    Most US and State signed roads – have US or VA in front of the numbers and nothing in front of local roads usually in the 600 or 700 series. In other states such roads are more explicitly signed with “county road” or “CR” in front of the number.

    Each type of road has specific design requirements as well as curb access requirements. Newer major artery roads are often now limited-access – not totally like Interstates but much more difficult to put a private curb cut directly on the road. Usually required to connect to a road that then connects to the limited access.

    VDOT has a variety of restrictive measures for new development on roads that are already heavily impacted. It’s called Access-Management and it often will result in closure of median-cross-overs and required extra lanes at traffic signals with things like double left turn lanes, and accel/deccel lanes at new curb cuts.

    but as far as I know, VDOT must find a way to allow a connection – but it might be very expensive.

    but it’s not used to control or manage growth; the rules and restrictions are based on safe operation of the road – not a perfect process no matter what.

    Been through the Great Falls area a few times and my impression is that the terrain would be a challenge for both water/sewer and roads sufficient to handle denser development.

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      “Been through the Great Falls area a few times and my impression is that the terrain would be a challenge for both water/sewer and roads sufficient to handle denser development.”.

      FFX County doesn’t see a challenge for water and sewer. They can tell you exactly how they’s bring it in. As for roads … well, like I said, they don’t care.

  13. there are two interesting things – related.

    1. – get a google map with Great Falls on it then put it in satellite view and look at the land between rt 193 and the river – and follow it down stream to I-495 and you can see pretty much where water/sewer is and is not.

    Note that SR 193 is a Virginia Primary road not a secondary road. Why?

    2. – Great Falls is a “census designated place”. That has a specific meaning which one can better understand by reading the wiki entry.

  14. Darrell Avatar

    You know once upon a time I would spend hours researching these topics, but eventually I said the heck with it. Down here in Tidewater the last housing boom was related to two specific terms. The lot size was determined by the city to reduce the housing density and reduce the need for services, while the value of the house had to create sufficient taxes to collectively pay for the city services provided. The developer had to fit their profit into the equation. Which is why you had Mcmansions on 1 acre lots instead of affordable housing for the work force. How you landscaped the lot was the housing association’s judgement.

  15. Developers don’t tell you want you want – they try to offer the products you want.

    If the city is provisioning infrastructure – at cost – then they do have an agenda to minimize their costs of infrastructure and services to keep taxes low.

    Neither the developer nor the city seems to have in the affordable workforce housing hunt… as Darrell opines witch turns would-be local workers into remote commuters.

  16. oops:

    ” Neither the developer nor the city seems to have A DOG in the affordable workforce housing hunt… as Darrell opines witch turns would-be local workers into remote commuters.

    this is because such housing will more likely consume more in services than it pays in taxes so they choose – like Fairfax and others – to import their labor needs via the highway system.

    Water and Sewer are not infinite resources either. Both water treatment for potable drinking water and wastewater treatment have finite capacities and expanding those plants is very costly – and translates into higher hookup-fees to pre-fund future expansion… the size of the lines to residential determine the hook-up cost – the bigger the pipe- the higher the hookup cost.

    when new development is considered – that nasty old top-down, central-planning that Reed hates – is a necessity.

    In order to determine the size and scope of infrastructure like roads and water/sewer to provide – you have to know how dense the development will be – the denser the development – the bigger transportation and water/sewer infrastructure has to be built.

    you cannot plan and design infrastructure for development without central planning.

    Someone has to be in charge of the roads and the water/sewer… as basic utilities. Schools have to have someone in charge of knowing when/where new schools are needed. Ditto, fire, EMS, libraries, etc…

    central planning is mandatory for land development.

  17. Good land use planning is not tops down. Rather, it involves a reasonable set of laws, access to professionals in land use-related disciplines, and considerable and timely input from all stakeholders, including landowners, developers, the business community and the affected and surrounding neighborhoods. Good land use planning requires issues to be surfaced and addressed early in the process. Bogus issues are easily uncovered and discarded. Substantive ones must have solutions.

    Good land use planning identifies the needed increases in infrastructure, the associated costs, funding mechanisms and ways to stretch existing public facilities. Good land use planning balances the interests of the stakeholders.

    1. reed fawell III Avatar
      reed fawell III

      This comment is right on the mark. Good planning should be bottom up –

      Done right, such bottom up planning has a far higher chance of working to build solutions that take full advantage of local needs, concerns, facts and interests, and of using them to build consensus that takes full advantage of the flexibilities that should be built into all modern land use codes.

      I’ll sure some places have mastered this game, and do it regularly.

      Unfortunately, however, far too often it seems we’re unable to start the game, or even to construct and operate within a framework that gives the game a chance, or one that even draws the necessary mix of players to the table, much work through a productive process that resolves conflicts and arrives at productive and informed solutions.

      For only one of many examples, a highly motivated group driving a narrow agenda can to often thwart the process altogether simply by reason of the default of most everyone else who aren’t sufficiently motivated to play at all.

      Building the skills, took, and systems, to override these all to common shortcomings inherent in many modern communities are sorely needed.

      1. ” For only one of many examples, a highly motivated group driving a narrow agenda can to often thwart the process altogether simply by reason of the default of most everyone else who aren’t sufficiently motivated to play at all.”

        This is why bottom-up is ultimated subordinate to top-down, central-managed processes like Comprehensive Planning.

        This is why, for instance, the law not only requires that the Comp Plan be updated BUT …. ALSO that it cannot be changed until a hearing is held to hear from ALL county citizens.

        This is also why the concept of Equal Protection applies to everyone and cannot be configured just for one group or neighborhood.

        A neighborhood, for instance, cannot make up it’s own zoning categories. It can only choose from the ones the county has codified.

        they cannot re-define what definitions like what Single Family or Commercial Retail means.

        bottom-up informs as to which of the allowed options a neighborhood wants – not defining what they want irregardless of the county rules.

  18. all good things that should be part of the process – but at the end of the day – you have to convince the guys in charge of zoning for the county and they have to codify the modified process.

    “top-down” means the decisions (as opposed to the process) are not not decentralized and done on a per-situation, AD Hoc basis.

    otherwise – you’d end up with an entire region with a patchwork of conflicting policies and land-use – that would – impact others adversely.

    It’s up to the leadership to support citizen input and good processes for reaching informed decisions – but at the same time -you cannot be making arbitrary decisions that conflict with other policies…willy nilly.

  19. A comprehensive plans is by definition – at top-down endeavor even if it is developed bottom-up.

    At some point – the “bottom-up” has to be reconciled with county ordinances and policies that are by their nature applicable to the county in general.

    The law – that requires counties to develop and update Comp Plans is a a top-down process.

    Once a Comp Plan is written/updated – the county develops ordinances to reflect – at least some of the words in the COmp plan in terms of what parts of the county will be developed in what ways – to include in most counties things like where density (that requires water/sewer) will be supported – and where it will not.

    Top-Down, centrally-managed paradigms do no rule out bottom-up, decentralized processes to help inform what should be done or not – but at the end of the day – there should be no doubt that there is an authority in charge that will make decisions about what is permitted (literally) and what is not.

    Just think – what the interstate highway would look like if each census designated place made it’s own decisions about design.

    just think about how laws for things like Murder of Fraud would work if each county had their own rules.

    The stuff that Reed blathers about is loony tunes … wacko bird stuff that has become rampant on the web… but it has little to do with the reality that exists in counties and states ….

    we are a top-down, centrally-managed nation.

    it does not preclude bottom-up processes .

    but you really do know what the reality is – when the law requires
    “hearings” and “referenda”.

    both are what the central govt are required to do in gathering input from the citizens…before they make decisions but make no mistake – it is the central govt in the county and the state that do make these decisions.

  20. accurate Avatar

    There are a couple pther reasons for lot size (as well as some solutions). Fire codes – if dwelling units are too close together, fire spreads rapidly. Ditto if streets are too narrow, fire fighting equipment can’t get through or get enough equipment to adequately fight the fire. One subdivision that wanted narrow streets and a smaller distance between homes was required to install fire sprinklers in the homes. This added to the cost of the homes. Just a note to let you know there are other reasons that are beyond the greed factor that I seem to see here.

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