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New zoning category proposed to boost density, protect neighborhoods

Monday, March 3, 2008 by Kimberly Reeves

Council Member Brewster McCracken has suggested an “urban duplex” zoning category as one more step beyond the current McMansion ordinance and a way to increase density within the inner city.


McCracken made his comments after the Council heard some recommendations for tweaks to the McMansion ordinance at last week’s Council meeting.


Whether the issue was super duplexes or granny flats, space has been a chronic issue for the last decade. Maybe it is time to consider a denser duplex in those areas where such a structure might be appropriate, McCracken said.


“There’s been a constant pushing at the edges (of our ordinance) because these are commercial properties in the middle of a neighborhood. They sell them by the square foot, so they are investor-driven commercial properties that function, in many cases, like multi-family units that are using single-family zoning,” McCracken said. “So we’re always seeing that tension there. And the possibility that I’ve discussed with Karen (McGraw) and William (Burkhardt) is to take something that we had actually directed at the time we adopted the ordinance in 2006, which was to create two types of duplexes: the neighborhood duplex and the urban duplex.”


The urban duplex zoning category might have looser restrictions but would function as a higher density structure that could be used as a transition between single-family and multi-family zoning.


That may have to be a longer-term goal. In the meantime, McCracken urged Council to put the recommendations back on the Council agenda this month, so the Council could approve them before Mayor Pro Tem Betty Dunkerley left the dais. Dunkerley was a key expert on the issue and should be part of any discussion, McCracken said. (She will not be leaving until her successor is elected in May or June, however.)


Last week’s Council briefing was a chance to review just what works and doesn’t work in the six-month-old McMansions ordinance. And while the list of exceptions and questions was long – and painstakingly reviewed by the original task force over 17 meetings – most of the proposed reworking of the code seemed to be minor. Still, the task force reviewed and considered more than 100 items on a lengthy spreadsheet.


Both Planner Jessica King and task force co-chair Laura Morrison were highly methodical about this, which is why we know that the ordinance has not stunted the filing of applications, that most of those applications are for remodeling permits and the majority of variances have been approved by the Residential Design and Compatibility Commission.


Does an addition make a home look out-of-place in a single-family neighborhood? Do the dimensions of a new home conflict with the style and character of a neighborhood that go beyond the bounds of simple good taste? The McMansions ordinance puts numbers and limits to how that is defined and then balances it against the rights of owners and developers.


Morrison told the Council it was critical to maintain that balance. Members of the task force looked at the existing ordinance and some new issues.


“What we heard from the public differed. Some folks thought that the regulations were too constraining. Other folks thought they were way too loose,” Morrison said. “As you will recall when we went through the first phase of the task force, we came to a carefully crafted, delicate consensus to get 15 out of 16 folks on board to make it work for them. And we were fully respectful of that consensus and considered it sacred as we went through things. We didn’t want to adjust things too far one way or the other in a way that would have made the consensus no longer applicable.”


Issues fit into five categories: yard setbacks; setback plans; floor-to-area-ratio exemptions; basic definitions; and some issues outside that chapter of code. Morrison noted that of the recommendations made by the task force, eight changes would be considered loosening the ordinance; five might be clarified as tightening the language; seven changes clarified language; three address oversights or unintended consequences; and the remaining four changes were addressed under the category of “other items.”


Morrison also noted that the SF-5 zoning category was addressed by neither the compatibility ordinance nor the McMansion ordinance.


Variances are limited to 25 percent of tents, walls and setbacks. Anything more significant would have to go to the Board of Adjustment for a “finding of fact.” This gave the commission more latitude, more dialogue and the ability to send a homeowner away to come back with revised plans, one reason why the RDCC eventually granted 33 out of 43 variances.


All told, the RDCC saw about 2 percent of the permits filed within the core urban boundaries where the McMansion ordinance was applied.


RDCC Chair Burkhardt said that the commission saw an initial spike in cases, which is tapering off over time. That could be a slow down in the housing market or a willingness to work with planners to settle issues with additions before they reach the RDCC, Burkhardt said.


Many of the initial cases involved side-wall articulation, which became an issue on a number of non-standard-sized lots in the inner city, King said.

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