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ZAP recommends city scrutinize flag lot rules

Friday, November 13, 2009 by Kimberly Reeves

The Zoning and Platting Commission, after hours of discussion in committee, agreed to a number of changes in the administration of flag lots.


Flag lots are the result of the subdivision of larger existing lots into smaller ones. The new lot, the flag lot, often sits behind the existing home, or potential home, on the larger lot and has a limited amount of lot frontage and access. In an economy in which jobs are gone but land prices are still at a premium, the flag lot has become a popular alternative to maintain existing residential lots, ZAP has learned.


Hence, a number of nagging issues began to emerge as ZAP reviewed the flag lots. After a number of cases stacked up, Chair Betty Baker convened a commission committee, reflecting commissioners’ concerns about the safety of the lots. That committee held a number of extra sessions to hash out the unique issues that surround this emerging type of subdivided lot. Ironically, at the final vote, it was committee chair Gregory Bourgeois who was not on board with one aspect of the final decision. More on that later.


What the subcommittee decided, as laid out by Bourgeois at last week’s ZAP meeting, was to address the flag lot issue on three significant fronts: fire safety, required utilities, and legal issues. And, by the way, calling it a ZAP “committee” was a bit of an exaggeration, since the majority of ZAP members attended all the flag lot committee meetings.


The fire safety suggestions, as outlined by Bourgeois, would require no change in the city’s current code. The concern of the commission was that flag lots might require special consideration from the fire department, given the frontage and access issues. In one recent case, for example, commissioners were concerned that the street did not allow for a proper turn radius to address a subdivided flag lot if the lot’s house were on fire and needed access for proper fire department apparatus.


The suggestion from the committee was that the fire department review all flag lot subdivisions. A reviewer for the fire department is already on staff for particular cases, so the suggestion did not require any change in code, Bourgeois said. Instead, the fire department has agreed to institute an automatic review of flag lot subdivisions, although in recent cases, the department has waived many of its requirements on flag lots, as long as the subdivided lot met other safety suggestions.


The second suggestion made by the committee was that secondary lots should be reviewed by city staff to make sure they have the required utility access, be it water lines or driveways. City code does not allow utility lines to cross private-property boundaries, so access issues do come into play, Bourgeois said.


And third, concerning legal issues, Bourgeois’ committee suggested that any subdividing of a lot to create a flag lot be considered a variance. That would trigger an automatic review by the proper land-use committee. The concept of a variance, which introduces the issue of hardship –whether a property owner can prove a hardship necessitating creation of the second lot– did raise some concerns in public discussion.


The point where Bourgeois parted with his colleagues, however, concerned the particular width prescribed for driveways. An amendment was proposed to make sure flag lots meet the minimum requirements of driveway width set out by the county in its extra-territorial jurisdiction. County policy, as interpreted by the commission, says that any lot with at least three residences on the same shared driveway has to have driveway access of at least 20 feet to allow emergency vehicles to enter and exit.


Bourgeois argued that this 20-foot-width standard is being applied across the city and that he did not have enough information to determine whether the width was appropriate in all situations. Others on the commission noted, however, that most homes have at least two cars and that the 20-foot width would provide both emergency-vehicle access and parking spaces for vehicles.


Driveway width in a rural area might not be equivalent to the required driveway width in denser urban areas, Bourgeois argued. He said he simply did not have enough information to make an informed vote.


The commission, however, did go with the minimum 20-foot driveway width in its final vote. That created a 6-1 vote on the recommendations, with Bourgeois voting against the motion. The recommendations will now be forwarded to the Planning Commission’s Codes and Ordinances subcommittee.

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