This study analyzes the available minimum lot sizes and minimum home sizes in ordinance at the local level in Georgia. This includes Georgia’s counties, county seats and cities within the metro Atlanta area.
There is a wide range of lot and home size minimums across the state. This study uses the standard recommended by the Georgia Department of Public Health as a reference point to determine which districts have notably high or low minimum lot requirements. Many local governments also utilize this recommendation: 43,560 sq. ft. (one acre) for properties with septic tanks and 21,780 sq. ft. (one half-acre) for properties using public water and sewage.
The study also focuses on each local government’s residential district with the largest minimum dimensional requirements for single-family homes. The minimums listed are almost never representative of their entire jurisdictions. These particular districts were highlighted because they present the biggest obstacle to homebuilding and specified only if they do not meaningfully differentiate themselves from other single-family residential districts in their respective zoning ordinances.
This study found 31 counties, eight cities in metro Atlanta and six county seats that contained single-family residential districts with minimum lot requirements above the DPH’s standard. There were 50 counties, 60 cities in metro Atlanta and 87 county seats where the single-family residential districts with the highest minimum lot requirements fell below the DPH’s standard.
Minimum home requirements are typically more complex in terms of regulatory guidance, and there is more variance in industry standards concerning what home minimums should be. There are also far fewer home size minimums enforced and readily available. However, we have included home size requirements for the same districts in Georgia’s counties and county seats, as well as metro Atlanta cities. The range of home size minimums can be compared to each other, to average home sizes on the market and to minimum standards of the past. Based on existing academic research and the current policy landscape, we have used 1,000 sq. ft. as our reference point for minimum home size.
This study found 16 counties, 30 cities in metro Atlanta and 25 county seats that contained single-family residential districts with minimum home size requirements above 1,000 sq. ft. There were eight counties, three cities in metro Atlanta and 6 county seats containing single-family residential districts with minimum home size requirements below 1,000 sq. ft.
Density is perhaps the most defining characteristic for our notion of what constitutes a city or county. The more homes – or apartments – built per square mile, the more an area is associated with urban living. Single-family housing on large parcels of undeveloped or agricultural land is considered rural. Thus, any residential development, or lack thereof, is determined at the local level by zoning laws. This allows local governments to determine how the property within their jurisdiction can be used, whether it is for residential, commercial, agricultural or manufacturing purposes.
The right of local governments to enact planning and zoning ordinances is expressed in the Georgia Constitution:
The governing authority of each county and of each municipality may adopt plans and may exercise the power of zoning. This authorization shall not prohibit the General Assembly from enacting general laws establishing procedures for the exercise of such power.1https://sos.ga.gov/sites/default/files/2022-02/state_constitution.pdf
Yet, the debate over the extent of property rights continues. In fact, it is one that has existed for decades. In April 1952, the American Society of Planning Officials (a precursor to the American Planning Association) published the report, “Minimum Requirements for Lot and Building Size.”2https://www.planning.org/pas/reports/report37.htm The questions that they sought to answer remain relevant today.
The body of law with respect to such provisions is also growing, as each case adds new precedents and new arguments. To what extent are such requirements based upon a reasonable exercise of the police power? To what extent are they related to the goals of health, safety and welfare? Or to what extent has the motivation for such regulations come from the desire of wealthier groups to exclude less wealthy groups from their district or their community? Is the aim economic segregation? Where does the proper exercise of police power for the good of the community end?
Scholars contend that zoning limits on residential density are what drive costs in high demand areas.3https://www.mercatus.org/research/research-papers/do-minimum-lot-size-regulations-limit-housing-supply-texas But in a fast growing state like Georgia – with a recent history of major economic development projects focused in rural areas – the demand is increasingly statewide. Limits on residential zoning not only increase the cost of housing for new residents by stifling supply, but a lack of different housing types within a community limits the ability of existing homeowners to account for life changes. Whether that is empty nesters looking to downsize, or additional children causing families to outgrow their starter home.
Lot size minimums require that any new housing be developed on a parcel of land not below a certain amount. For example, a minimum lot size requirement that exists in ordinance of one acre means that a building permit will not be issued if the lot is below one acre. Home size minimums require new housing to exceed a certain threshold of square feet; otherwise a building permit will not be issued.
For this study, we examined the use of lot and home size minimum requirements in local governments in Georgia.
Within local government codes and ordinances, layers of building, zoning and public health regulations also determine density. For example, the Georgia Department of Public Health publishes minimum lot size guidance to promote sanitary on-site sewage management.4https://dph.georgia.gov/document/document/manual-site-sewage-management-systems-rules The department recommends a lot size minimum of 43,560 sq. ft. (one acre) for septic and 21,780 sq. ft. (half acre) for public water and sewer. However, local governments are ultimately allowed to determine their own lot size minimums; some are below the recommended threshold while some are significantly higher.
The state guidance for home size minimums is not as straightforward. Georgia, like nearly every state, has adopted the International Residential Code (IRC) for home construction standards. However, the enforcement of these codes, along with any variance in the regulation beyond what the state requires, resides within the local government. Cities and counties are responsible for the administration of state and local standards, while the Department of Community Affairs “periodically reviews, amends and/or updates the state minimum standard codes.”5https://www.dca.ga.gov/local-government-assistance/construction-codes-industrialized-buildings/construction-codes For single-family homes, the IRC does not explicitly define minimum home size standards. Rather the extent of the code consists of two separate criteria: Every dwelling unit shall have one room that is not less than 120 square feet (along with a 70 sq. ft. minimum for any additional rooms)6https://codes.iccsafe.org/content/IBC2021P1/chapter-12-interior-environment, and an amendment defining tiny homes as 400 sq. ft. or less in floor area7https://www.dca.ga.gov/sites/default/files/irc_2020_amendments_1.pdf – this is despite the widespread branding and marketing of “tiny homes” for housing units larger than those dimensions.
In their 1952 report, the American Society of Planning Officials frequently refers to 1,000 sq. ft. as a benchmark for home size minimums throughout their analysis of the legal precedent and evolution of local government ordinance. Despite the average size of new single-family housing increasing – in 1973, it was 1,660 sq. ft. and is now over 2,200 sq ft.8https://www.rocketmortgage.com/learn/average-square-footage-of-a-house – 1,000 sq. ft. remains a modest standard that we used as a guideline for our study. 9Notably, the ASPO report concludes by hypothesizing that 600 sq. ft. could represent the lowest possible minimum to maintain the proper balance between standard and health.
The average industry standard of $150 per square foot for new residential construction can offer insight into how pernicious these minimums can become. For example, requiring new housing to be a minimum of 2,000 sq. ft. (estimated to cost $300,000) rather than 1,500 sq. ft. (an estimate of $225,000) means an additional $75,000 in home construction price alone.
Legislation to address excessive lot and home size requirements was introduced in the Georgia Legislature in 2023. HB 517 prohibited local governments from requiring home size minimums greater than 1,200 sq. ft. and that lot size minimums could not exceed the DPH requirements regarding size for lots on both septic and public water and sewer.10https://www.legis.ga.gov/legislation/64637 The bill ultimately did not advance beyond a subcommittee hearing.
Most of the data was compiled from publicly available sources. For the cities or counties that do not provide this information online, attempts to contact local governments were made. Data was collected for 157 of Georgia’s 159 counties, 126 of Georgia’s 159 county seats, and 83 of the 92 municipalities from the fifteen counties that comprise the Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District.11Bartow, Cherokee, Clayton, Cobb, Coweta, DeKalb, Douglas, Fayette, Forsyth, Fulton, Gwinnett, Hall, Henry, Paulding, and Rockdale.
Local governments have a series of zoning districts, typically regulating residential, commercial, agricultural, manufacturing and mixed use, among others. Even these specific types of districts have variances within them. Thus, in an effort to best evaluate attempts to regulate future growth and density, we listed the single-family residential zones from each local government with the highest minimum lot and home size requirements.
We did this in order to highlight unnecessarily inflated restrictions for the development of single-family housing. Some examples of these districts’ descriptions and stated purposes are included to demonstrate how they differentiate from other single-family districts in their respective cities or counties. In many cases, local governments may have multiple districts zoned for single-family residential purposes, each with their own range of dimensional requirements. We included the highest of these to demonstrate the biggest possible challenges dictated by local governments in the relevant districts. As such, readers might identify a certain city or county with different lot and home size minimums than what is accounted for in this study.
There is a great deal of variance in how local governments arrange single-family residential districts; some municipalities contain multiple residential districts with varying lot and home minimums, while others might contain only one. Other cities and towns adhere to their respective counties’ requirements.
While this variance reflects both the differences between communities across Georgia and in their local governance, there is a thread of commonality among the single-family districts with the largest minimums. The zoning ordinance for these districts with larger dimensional requirements will often contain language about preserving rural character, enforcing low density, accommodating local infrastructure or a combination of these motivations. Some districts contain idiosyncrasies explaining their rationale, such as lakefront property and proximity to farmland, that affect lot and home minimums. Specific examples of common language used in zoning ordinances are provided in the text where applicable.
In addition, local governments will often alternate between using square feet and acres to denote minimum size thresholds. To account for this, dimensions in each of the tables below have been standardized into square feet, while the study text generally refers to size with the more commonly used acreage.
Lot Size Minimums
Research has shown that the negative impact of large-lot zoning includes increasing the cost of housing, adversely affecting people other than the existing homeowners, exacerbating social segregation and harming the environment by spurring sprawl.12Paul Boudreaux, Lotting Large: The Phenomenon of Minimum Lot Size Laws, 68 Me. L. Rev. 1 (2016). Of Georgia’s 159 counties, 31 counties contain districts that exceed the minimum one acre lot standard for single-family residential property. Those are listed in full in the table below.
Most significantly, districts in two Georgia counties in the southwestern region of the state, Lee and Worth, contain minimum lot requirements of five acres, far exceeding the minimum DPH standard. Lee County’s R1-L Low Density district is, according to the county’s zoning ordinance, “composed of certain areas having both rural and single-family residential characteristics and areas where it is desirable and likely that similar development will occur in the future. The district is also characterized by very low density of housing and large lot sizes, as well as uses that are associated with rural areas… The low intensity allowed in this district is similarly necessitated by the county’s need to preserve and support the existing public infrastructure.”13Lee County, GA, Zoning, Article IV, Sec. 70-127, 2023 Worth County is unique, with three zoning districts of five, two and 1.5 acre minimums. According to a county employee, these districts divide the northern, central and southern areas of the county, and are not based on typical zoning practices.
Fifty-six Georgia counties contain zoning districts in which the highest minimum lot requirement allows for residential construction below the minimum one acre lot standard. Some counties, including Dade, Echols, Glynn, Treutlen and Wheeler, do not have minimum lot requirements defined in their code. Two counties, Appling and Wilkinson, did not have the information publicly available online or respond to questions regarding their existing lot size minimum requirements.
|wdt_ID||County||Lot Size Minimum (sq. ft.)|
|County||Lot Size Minimum (sq. ft.)|
We examined 92 municipalities within metro Atlanta as part of this study. Of those, eight cities contained single-family districts that exceeded the one acre minimum recommended by the state. The R-3 single-family district in the town of Woolsey in Fayette County was the largest of these by far, with a lot size minimum of three acres.
This district in Woolsey was highlighted because it did not distinguish itself from most single-family residential districts. The district’s purposes in the city’s zoning ordinance include providing quiet, livable, low-density single-family neighborhoods, accommodating an estate residential lifestyle, prohibiting development densities that would substantially alter the historic development pattern and allowing the development of uncongested settings for households seeking privacy not afforded by smaller lot developments. It should be noted, too, that Woolsey’s R-1 district (a 1-acre minimum) acknowledges in its statement of purpose “the tremendous growth projected for the Atlanta region.” The R-1 district provides these lots “to enable households that desire a suburban lifestyle that remains affordable in a market characterized by the highest incomes in the state to choose a location in Woolsey.”14Woolsey, GA, Zoning, Chapter 7, Sec. 701.0, 2019
The other municipalities with residential districts that exceeded the DPH standard included the cities of Johns Creek, Milton and South Fulton, and the town of Clermont in Hall County, all with two acre lot size minimums. Suwanee, Sharpsburg and Stockbridge all contain residential districts that require a lot size minimum of at least 1.25 acres. The purposes of these districts included ensuring low-density residential uses. The districts highlighted in Sharpsburg and Stockbridge also state an intent to balance agricultural and residential usage.
In 59 of the local governments we examined in metro Atlanta, the districts containing the largest lot minimums allow for single-family lot development below the one acre standard.
|Name||wdt_ID||County||Lot Size Minimum (sq. ft.)|
|Name||County||Lot Size Minimum (sq. ft.)|
We were able to compile zoning ordinance data for 127 of Georgia’s 159 county seats. For the remaining 32 county seats, either there was no accessible lot minimum or the county’s lot size requirements were enforced within city limits. Some of these municipalities, such as Adel, Elberton and Lexington, had available comprehensive plans or zoning ordinances but did not list lot and home requirements. Others such as Homer, Morgan and Nahunta did not have readily available zoning ordinances. One county seat, Jackson, had an explainer listed on its website stating under its zoning ordinance that, “because the Jackson Zoning Ordinance is undergoing frequent revision, the city has chosen to withhold it from being printed in the Code for the near future.”15Jackson, GA, Zoning, Chapter 74, Editor’s Note, 2023 This page further stated that a zoning ordinance could be found on the city council’s site, but the link provided did not work correctly.
Six county seats in Georgia contain single-family districts above the one acre minimum: Leesburg (two acres), Monticello (1.51 acres), Greensboro (1.5 acres), Danielsville (1.5 acres), Athens (1.17 acres) and Eatonton (1.1 acres). The R-1 districts in Leesburg, Greenville and Danielsville encourage single-family residential character and undeveloped land where it is desirable and likely that similar development will occur. Leesburg’s ordinance additionally lists discouraging traffic and interferences to public services as a part of the R-1 district’s purpose.
The largest single-family districts in eighty-six county seats currently allow for lot development below one acre lots.
|wdt_ID||Name||County||Lot Size Minimum (sq. ft.)|
|Name||County||Lot Size Minimum (sq. ft.)|
Home Size Minimums
The International Residential Code (IRC) is the model adopted by 49 states including Georgia for single-family building codes.16https://codecheck.com/code-adoption-by-state/ As new single-family housing models like tiny homes continued to proliferate, the IRC removed its 120 sq. ft. minimum requirement in 2015, only to reinstate the minimum requirement in its 2018 and 2021 editions. However, Georgia does not impose a uniform acceptance of these standards and allows for local governments to determine their own zoning requirements. Despite industry benchmarks in the IRC for room minimums and tiny homes, there is not much uniformity across Georgia’s jurisdictions.
Less than 15 percent of Georgia’s 159 counties have clearly defined ordinances regarding home size minimums. They are listed in the table below. The highest home size minimum found in Georgia is 2,000 sq. ft., currently applicable in four counties: Banks, Lamar, Pike and Spalding. The districts in these four counties have similar stated purposes. They all include intent to provide for quiet, relatively low-density neighborhoods of single-family residences. However, when considering affordability, residents in these four counties would be restricted to building at least a $300,000 home using the accepted industry standard of $150 per square foot for construction. This is without considering the cost of land or any additional permitting fees imposed upon the builder and developer.
Twelve additional counties contain districts that require single-family homes to be at least 1,000 sq. ft.: Athens-Clarke, Cobb, Colquitt, Cook, Greene, Gwinnett, Henry, Irwin, Jasper, Jenkins, Lanier and Putnam.
|wdt_ID||County||Home Size Minimum (sq. ft.)|
|County||Home Size Minimum (sq. ft.)|
Thirty-three municipalities in metro Atlanta define minimum home size requirements in their local ordinance. The lowest of these is in the city of Atlanta, which contains a district that allows for single-family homes as small as 150 sq. ft.
Thirty-one local governments contain residential districts that require a minimum home size of at least 1,000 sq. ft., and ten of those are at least 2,000 sq. ft. The largest home size minimum in the state is 2,400 sq. ft., found in residential districts in Lawrenceville and the town of Woolsey. Hampton and Smyrna have districts with 2,200 sq. ft. minimums, and the following have 2,000 sq. ft. minimums: Milton, Union City, Powder Springs, Lake City, Stonecrest and Tucker.
The stated purposes of zoning districts are typically more relevant to minimum lot size than minimum home size, however there are exceptions where a home size minimum uniquely qualifies a district’s purpose. Most of the districts listed above simply contain the stated intent to provide for single-family or relatively low-density housing. However, Lawrenceville’s R-60 district is unique in its purpose, which states that the district “is intended to allow the construction of large homes on very small lots. The purpose for which this classification is created is to provide an area for the development of large homes which require very little outdoor maintenance… such homes would be desirable for elderly, retired, handicapped and other citizens who desire a substantial home and prefer that the home not have a large exterior lot for care and maintenance.”17Lawrenceville, GA, Schedule of District Regulations, Article VII, Section 7.4, 2019
|wdt_ID||Name||County||Home Size Minimum (sq. ft.)|
|Name||County||Home Size Minimum (sq. ft.)|
Thirty-two county seats currently have an existing and available home size minimum ordinance in at least one residential district. Twenty-five of those are at least 1,000 sq. ft. Lawrenceville, as described in the previous section, contains the highest minimum among county seats (2,400 sq. ft.), along with Winder (2,000 sq. ft.), Zebulon (1,850 sq. ft.), Jesup (1,800 sq. ft.) and Millen (1,800 sq. ft.). Atlanta also contains the lowest minimum threshold among county seats (150 sq. ft.), along with Sylvester, which lists “N/A” in the section for home size minimum.
|wdt_ID||Name||County||Home Size Minimum (sq. ft.)|
|10||Fitzgerald||Ben Hill, Irwin||1,500|
|Name||County||Home Size Minimum (sq. ft.)|
This study highlights data on local districts in Georgia that offer the biggest restrictions on homebuilding. The lack of access and affordability is expected to remain an ongoing concern for a state that is estimated to be over 364,000 housing units short.18https://www.jec.senate.gov/public/_cache/files/efdd0c37-af95-40cd-9125-e80f8a11504b/the-houses-act—addressing-the-national-housing-shortage-by-building-on-federal-land.pdf
While the lot and home size minimums listed do not typically represent an entire district’s zoning, their stated purposes often lend insight into the rationale behind large minimums. Districts with large dimensional requirements are enforced for reasons ranging from infrastructural integrity to rural character, and determining whether those justify certain requirements is ultimately a subjective exercise.
Furthermore, the enforcement of minimum requirements at the local government level will consequently result in variance across the state and in different parts of the community. Most of the districts listed in this study fell on or below the standard minimum recommended by the Department of Public Health. Since that is the case across counties, county seats and metro Atlanta, we can determine that Georgia’s local governments do not habitually encourage low density.
We recognize that differences between and within jurisdictions inevitably lead to variance in zoning goals. However, given the economic realities and population expectations faced in Georgia today, some local governments may soon need to reevaluate their ordinances to allow for greater density – at a minimum to provide for adequate workforce housing. Highlighting trends, forecasting development and noting districts where the biggest obstacles exist should be useful in informing future practices. Consequently, relying on “the county or city over” to shoulder the burden for any additional housing units is no longer a sustainable strategy for a state with continued economic development and sustained population growth that far exceeds the projected housing supply.
- 9Notably, the ASPO report concludes by hypothesizing that 600 sq. ft. could represent the lowest possible minimum to maintain the proper balance between standard and health.
- 11Bartow, Cherokee, Clayton, Cobb, Coweta, DeKalb, Douglas, Fayette, Forsyth, Fulton, Gwinnett, Hall, Henry, Paulding, and Rockdale.
- 12Paul Boudreaux, Lotting Large: The Phenomenon of Minimum Lot Size Laws, 68 Me. L. Rev. 1 (2016).
- 13Lee County, GA, Zoning, Article IV, Sec. 70-127, 2023
- 14Woolsey, GA, Zoning, Chapter 7, Sec. 701.0, 2019
- 15Jackson, GA, Zoning, Chapter 74, Editor’s Note, 2023
- 17Lawrenceville, GA, Schedule of District Regulations, Article VII, Section 7.4, 2019