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Do I need a permit for a backyard shed in Chesterfield County, Virginia?

Updated: Mar 20

An in-depth look at when you do and when you don’t need to secure a permit for your backyard shed.


Named for Philip Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield, Chesterfield County, Virginia was established in 1749 from parts of Henrico County. Currently, the county covers 437 square miles with a population of over 350,000 residents. The county borders the city of Richmond, the capital of Virginia.


Chesterfield County provides over 4,000 acres of green space for outdoor enthusiasts. Both the James and Appomattox rivers offer plenty of opportunity for boating and fishing. Pocahontas State Park, rated in the top 10 best places for camping in the United States, has over 90 miles of trails for all skill levels. Dutch Gap Conservation Area, with over 800-acres of forest, wildlife, and water, offers plenty of space for relaxing in nature.


Within two hours of Washington, D.C., the Atlantic coast, and the Blue Ridge Mountains, Chesterfield County is serviced by three interstate highways. Hop on one and you’re at Williamsburg, Kings Dominion, or Busch Gardens in under an hour. 


No matter where you live, before building a structure, you need to make sure you’re complying with local zoning and building codes. If you live in one of Chesterfield County’s many communities that have a homeowner’s association, you need to check with them, as well. These codes and laws are adapted for both safety and community purposes. They make sure that all structures, whether you live in them or not, are safe to occupy or protect their contents and that they don’t infringe on the rights of adjacent landowners. Sometimes, the law requires the homeowner to secure a permit for the work to be done. This post discusses the reasons behind permitting, what happens if you fail to secure a permit, and whether you need a building permit for a backyard shed in Chesterfield County, Virginia.


The Purpose Behind Building Permits

A building permit is like a permission slip. You submit your plans for work to the county, they give you a permit to begin the work, then an inspector comes to make sure the work was done according to the Uniform Statewide Building Code before giving you permission to use the space. Chesterfield County wants to see the plans for your building. If you’re buying your backyard shed from Ulrich Lifestyle, they can provide those for you. You’ll also need a plat of your property noting where the building is to be set, distances from the proposed accessory structure to the primary building and property lines; and if your property has a well or septic system, the location of the septic tank, drain field and well, with measurements.


Depending on the size of the project, an inspector will sign off on the job at various stages of the work. This provides assurance that each stage—framing, electrical, masonry—is done correctly according to code. A simple backyard shed wouldn’t require so many visits from a building inspector but a garage may.


What Happens If I Don’t Get A Building Permit?

Failing to secure a building permit when required can result in some pretty stiff consequences. First, they’ll send an inspector to your home to look over your work. If they find any work not done according to code, they could require that you redo the work to bring it up to code, resulting in loss of both time and money. If you’ve progressed far enough to hide some things, like electric wiring, they’ll ask that you deconstruct enough so they can inspect it. That’s more time and money lost. And, no matter what the circumstances are, you’ll still have to purchase that permit. Finally, if you go to sell your home in the future and the Realtor or title officer discovers the lack of permit, you may still be required to secure one before being allowed to sell your home.


Do I Need A Building Permit For A Backyard Shed In Chesterfield County?

That depends. First, let’s start with the myth:

FALSE: If your building is under 256 square feet, no building permit is required.

This common misconception is a half-truth. The whole truth is a lot more complicated. Here is the text verbatim from the “Exemptions from application for permit” section of the “Virginia Residential Code Requirements Pertaining to Accessory Structures.”

One story detached structures used as tool and storage sheds, playhouses, or similar uses, provided the building area does not exceed 256 square feet (23.78 m2) and the structures are not classified as a Group F-1 or H occupancy.

Note the text in bold. If you intend to use your backyard shed as anything other than what is highlighted in bold, you need a permit. If you want a summer kitchen, guest cottage, in-law suite, backyard home office, or anything other than a tool or storage shed, even if it’s less than 256 square feet, you need a permit.


What Are The Finer Points To Consider?

This size exemption for storage sheds is only one part of the permitting puzzle. There are a number of other considerations. Primarily, a building of any size must be built to comply with Virginia Residential Code Requirements. If you’re building your own storage shed, it’s up to you to research what those code requirements are. If you’re buying from Ulrich Lifestyle, rest assured, we have that under control. But let’s look at a few code requirements that some other shed builders might not take to heart like we do.


Treatment of wood-based products—In some instances, the wooden components of your backyard shed must be either “naturally durable wood” like cedar or “preservative-treated in accordance with AWPA U1” or pressure-treated. What are those instances?

  1. Wooden floor joists closer than 18 inches or wood girders closer than 12 inches to the exposed ground. Fortunately, all Ulrich Lifestyle buildings include pressure-treated floor joists and girders. If you’re shopping around, that’s a great question to ask other manufacturers.

  2. All wood framing members that touch concrete or masonry exterior foundation walls and are less than 8 inches from the exposed ground. If you plan to set your building on concrete, you want to know this. 

  3. Sills and sleepers resting on a concrete slab unless a moisture barrier is used.

  4. Siding, sheathing, and framing less than 6 inches from the ground or less than 2 inches above concrete or similar surface exposed to the weather. All of Ulrich Lifestyle buildings include treated wood siding.

Foundations and footing requirements—While your backyard storage building doesn’t require a permanent foundation, there are still a few rules to follow. The general rule from Section R403.1 of the building code reads:

All exterior walls shall be supported on continuous solid or fully grouted masonry or concrete footings, wood foundations, or other approved structural systems that shall be of sufficient design to accommodate all loads according to Section R301 and to transmit the resulting loads to the soil within the limitations as determined from the character of the soil. Footings shall be supported on undisturbed natural soils or engineered fill.

Tool sheds under 256 square feet do not require permanent foundations but still need to be tied down for wind. Other exceptions include:

  1. The building eve is under 10 feet

  2. Floor level to grade doesn’t exceed 18 inches

  3. The structure is anchored to withstand wind loads as required by code

  4. Supporting structural elements touching the ground are level, on solid soil, and if wooden, preservative-treated.

  5. The structure is constructed of light-frame materials or wood or light-gauge steel and not slate, tile, brick, or masonry.

When it comes to footings, if your building is greater than 600-square-feet, or has an eve height of greater than 10 feet, the footings must be below the frost depth for Chesterfield County of 18 inches.


Zoning Requirements For Storage Buildings In Chesterfield County?

A zoning review will be part of a building permit review. Where building code has to do primarily with how the shed is constructed, zoning regulates several standards such as building size, height, and where it is placed. Zoning regulations apply regardless of whether a building permit is required. Here are a few things Chesterfield County wants you to consider about zoning standards for sheds:

  1. Every property is in a zoning district that has a classification (R-7 and R-9 for residential and C-1 and C-2 for business, for example). Each zoning district has its own “blanket requirements.” However, a development or property may have unique zoning standards that affect things like setbacks or building design.

  2. Each zoning district has its own setback requirements. 

  3. Auxiliary buildings in a commercial district must be placed according to the same setbacks as the main building.

  4. Here are the general setback requirements for residential zones where the accessory building is less than 12-foot in height include:

  5. In the front yard, the building must be placed in feet from the road, half the depth of the lot or 80 feet, whichever is less.

  6. If the lot is a corner lot, side yard setbacks are the same as the front yard for that zone.

  7. In the side yard, the building must be placed in feet from the property line, half the measurement of that side yard.

  8. In the rear yard, the building must be placed at least 10-feet from the property line.

Confused? Understandable. There’s a lot to consider. That’s why the folks at Chesterfield County always advise homeowners to call first. Everyone’s situation is different, they say, so it pays to always check with the department.


Is There Anything Else To Know?

There are a few other items you may want to think about before signing off on a new backyard storage building.

  1. Just because your backyard building is legal with the local authorities, doesn’t mean it will pass the muster with your homeowner’s association. If you live in an area under association rules, always check with them first.

  2. If you want to rent a shed on a temporary basis, such as while your home is being remodeled or to store your things while moving, the same zoning and permitting rules apply.

  3. Your storage building must be detached from the main house.

  4. If you want electricity or plumbing, you need a building permit and a permit for the utility.

  5. If your building is for commercial purposes like an office that the general public will visit, you need a permit.

  6. Any garage used to store vehicles needs a non-combustible floor.

For More Information…

To learn more about obtaining a building permit for a backyard shed in Chesterfield County, Virginia, visit their website at https://www.chesterfield.gov/223/Building-Inspection, call 804-748-1057, or email BIPermitsAndFees@chesterfield.gov. For zoning, visit https://www.chesterfield.gov/1294/Residential-Setbacks, call 804-748-1050, or email planning@chesterfield.gov.

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