Are you planning to build a shop, home, or any other structure in California? Well, if you’re, you should know that you can build it onto the road or street. 

Why? Because each state has certain rules for that. These rules determine how far your structure should be from adjacent properties/ street. That also applies to the rear and side. In fact, that distance is known as ‘setback’! Just look at any architectural design in California and you’ll note this. 

Local governments apply setbacks to establish ‘no-building zones’ on the property. Another benefit of setbacks is that they keep harmful operations and traffic at bay. 

What’s the definition of a setback? 

It’s the smallest distance from the property line you should maintain when building structures. This distance also applies to the streets, roads, rivers, flood plain, or shores. They establish an exact distance from a specific point. Say like an adjacent structure/ property line. Building a structure within that area is illegal. 

Significance of setbacks 

The main purpose of setbacks is to prevent owners from crowding their neighborhoods. This ensures that one’s property doesn’t block their neighbor’s view. They also ensure every property in the area has enough access to light and ventilation. 

Local governments establish setbacks through building codes, ordinances, and zoning restrictions. They create these rules for public policy purposes like privacy, safety & environmental protection. Also, setbacks help in wetlands preservation and promote the safe installation of pipelines. Neighborhood developers or an architect might also establish setback lines to ensure a uniform appearance. 

Setback rules 

These are property laws that govern boundaries and property lines. Regulation of these distances falls under the zoning laws & restrictions. Setback rules also apply to commercial buildings. Especially the minimum distance between the structure and the road to encourage safety. 

These rules can have a significant impact on your rights as a property owner. Especially when you want to change existing structures or develop the land. They also tend to affect property values. For instance, if the land restrictions are severe, its value may decrease. 

In some instances, the local government can allow you to build ahead of the setback line. For instance, if setbacks hinder your building, you can plea to the local government. To achieve this, you’ll need a variance. This special permission allows you to depart from zoning rule requirements. However, you’ll only get a variance in case of severe hardship. 

Size of setbacks in California 

As we said earlier, the local government determine the setbacks’ sizes. Those sizes will be according to your land’s classification of the zoning district. Remember, the zoning district also determines what you can do on your property. 

Setback measurement should be done at a right angle from the nearest property line point to the nearest building point. What if the lot is corner and odd-shaped? Simple! The Zoning officer will determine the position of the side, rear, and front property line. 

Setback requirements 

This refers to the minimum size as well as standards that govern the use of setbacks. Setback requirements provide open space around buildings for;

  • Traffic safety and visibility
  • Access to & around structures
  • Direct sunlight & ventilation 
  • Space for recreation, privacy & landscaping 
  • Separation of contradictory land uses 

Setbacks from Residential houses 

The minimum distance from the front property line should be 35 feet. Even so, this can vary if it’s specified greater on the zoning map. Older neighborhoods may be subject to some exceptions. 

The minimum distance from the back and side property lines should be 10 feet and 3 feet from any easement. For lots with a width of 50 feet or less, the distance from side property lines will be 5 feet. 

Decks/ Additions 

  • Property line setbacks should apply to decks & additions as described in residential houses. 
  • The distance of the septic field and tank from the property line should be 10 feet and 5 feet respectively. 

Accessory Structures (Detached garages, barns, or sheds)

  • A residence shall not have more than 2 detached accessory structures 
  • No detached accessory structure shall exceed a total floor area of 900 sq. ft. for lots with an area of 2 acres or less. 
  • For lots with an area of 2-5 acres, no detached accessory structure shall exceed a total floor area of 1800 sq. ft.
  • Accessory structures shouldn’t be on the property before construction of the main building.

Setbacks for accessory structures 

  • The minimum distance from the front property line should be 35 feet. That can only vary if it’s specified greater on the zoning map. 
  • The minimum distance from the back and side property lines should be 10 feet and 3 feet from any easement. For lots with a width of 50 feet or less, the distance from side property lines will be 5 feet. 
  • If the accessory structure exceeds 75 feet from the front line, the back/ sideline distance should be 3 feet. 
  • Animal barns should be at least 100 feet from the neighboring houses. 

Swimming pools 

  • Property line setbacks apply as described in accessory structures 
  • The least distance from the septic field and tank to the pools should be 25 feet and 10 feet. 25 feet for an in-ground pool and 10 feet for an above ground pool. 
  • Every property with a pool should have enough enclosure surrounding the pool area. The enclosure must have a height of at least 4 feet and a latching gate. 
  • If the sides of the above-ground pool are more than 4 feet high, a fence isn’t required. However, the pool should have a fold-up ladder. 


Construction of a privacy fence will need a building permit. It’s worth noting that a privacy fence refers to the one that passers-by can’t see through. So, the construction of split rail and chain link fences does not need building permits.

A fence can be built along the property line with the front side looking towards any direction. Furthermore, fences don’t have a height limit. 

Fences: A zoning ordinance 

Owners should not place, erect, or maintain electric or barbed wire/ spiked fences. Especially within a residential property. 


In general, every prospective buyer should be aware of the setback provisions. Particularly if there some subjected to a piece of land before buying it. That information will come in handy in your future development plans. Setbacks remain intact until a special local government action or law changes it. 

Furthermore, note that violating these regulations can result in legal proceedings/ penalties. You may also receive an order requiring you to demolish the non-compliant structures.

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