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How To Do A Build-Out Analysis


Residents often assume that their community's zoning regulations will protect them from inappropriate development, but conventional zoning and subdivision regulations typically allow development on all buildable land. A build-out analysis allows a community to test out its existing regulations -- to glimpse at its possible future when all land is developed to the maximum extent allowed under law. Build-out is a tool that shows the consequences of not revising existing land-use regulations. This may result in a call to action. In any case, it helps officials make better decisions in planning the future.

Build-out is not just for communities with vacant land. Any community with property that has not yet been developed to the full extent allowable under law can benefit from a build-out analysis.

The basics of a build-out analysis

There are two phases in doing a build-out analysis. Phase I visually depicts changes on a map. Phase II quantifies the impact of the changes. In both phases, a computerized geographic information system (GIS) can help. Finally, a summary brings together the critical information and conclusions in an easy-to-understand way. Sketches of possible future street scenes by a graphic artist can help convey the information.

Phase I

For Phase I, construct a base map of your community mounted on hard backing with clear overlay sheets of possible development.

The base map should show the basics, such as:


For land zoned residential that has not yet been developed, apply road standards and minimum lot size and frontage requirements as if the land was developed to the maximum extent allowable -- in other words. pack in the largest number of housing units allowed and do it in a way that does not take into account environmental, economic, or quality of life impacts. Likewise, for land zoned commercial, jam in the largest number of buildings and depict uses that are potentially the most damaging.

Analyzing the possible future of land that already has had some development takes more effort and investigation. For each property you will need to determine:

This analysis of already developed properties can be further complicated by "grandfathering" -- the property can be used differently than allowed under law when the use of the building existed before the current zoning laws came into being, For instance, a house may have been converted into a restaurant before laws were passed that restricted where restaurants could be placed and before laws that required off-street parking. Often this grandfathering will pass on to subsequent owners; sometimes it will not.

A further complication which needs to be considered is the possible consolidation of adjacent parcels. For instance, adjacent lots, each containing a small store, might be able to be consolidated to allow the construction of a superstore.

Other issues to consider in a build-out analysis include:

Communities which have a high percentage of undeveloped or underdeveloped land may want to do staggered overlays showing the possible progression of growth. For instance, the first might show growth along major roads and on large parcels. The next overlay might show growth on the next most desirable parcels. The last could show growth on the least desirable parcels.

Phase II

Phase II is a quantitative analysis of the impact of the changes detailed in Phase I. Numbers to calculate might include changes in:

For additional information on conducting a build-out analysis:

Manual of Build-Out Analysis, Exit EPA Click for Disclaimer Center for Rural Massachusetts, 1990 - Available through mail order.

"Shaping Future Development: The Role of Current Zoning Executive Summary (PDF) " [14 pp., 627KB]
This study measures and describes all future development permitted in the central and western municipalities of Montgomery County, PA under current zoning ordinances.

You will need Adobe Acrobat Reader, available as a free download, to view some of the files on this page. See EPA's PDF page to learn more about PDF, and for a link to the free Acrobat Reader.

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