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Board of Adjustment eyes ruling on limitations for ‘stealth dorms’

Tuesday, May 1, 2012 by Elizabeth Pagano

The Board of Adjustment is deliberating an interpretation request on a so-called “stealth dorm” at 1917 David Street. Their ruling could change the way such structures, also known as “super duplexes” are handled.


The request was brought to the board by Nuria Zaragosa, who was representing the Original West University Neighborhood Association. She asked that the board reconsider whether the Planning and Development Review Department’s Director was in error when he approved the proposed duplex for residential use.


“Developers are looking towards you, and your interpretation… to see if the ‘super duplex’ ordinance is still relevant. Also, to see if they can exempt large spaces from their gross floor area, simply by labeling them ‘unfinished storage,” Zaragoza told the BOA last week.


With that kind of pressure resting on such a complicated case, the board opted to postpone their decision until their May 14 meeting.


“I pretty much know where I’m sitting on this. I just want to make sure that it’s crafted in a manner that doesn’t have… a negative broad-brush effect across the entire city. It is one of those types of cases that I think we need to be very careful,” said Board Member Michael Von Ohlen.


Calling stealth dorms a city-wide problem, Zaragosa claimed that the property exceeds limitations placed on duplexes in the Land Development Code, which states that a duplex may not exceed 4,000 square feet of gross floor area or contain more than six bedrooms on a lot of less than 10,000 square feet.


The project’s opponents contend that the attic space of the structure does not qualify as an exempt attic space, does not qualify as a duplex in terms of shared wall space, and is incompatible with the zoned SF-3 use.


She and her neighbors contend that that attic, which has fixed stairs leading to it, is not honestly intended to be unfinished storage space, as plans indicate. As a result, the appeal also claims that the proposed duplex will exceed FAR requirements, off-street parking requirements, and landscaping requirements for a building its size.


The approved plans call for an 800-square-foot attic that has fold-down stairs. Additionally, there is another 1,300 square feet of attic space that had a full electrical plan and would be accessed by permitted stairs. “These areas make up almost 30 percent of the structure,” said Zaragosa.


“How does a structure almost identical to the duplex that brought about the ordinance get permitted? By blatantly mislabeling bedrooms and storage space,” said Zaragosa.


“While the plans were going through the permitting process, a study easily became a game room, and a bedroom becomes a study. All with no actual changes in the plans,” said Zaragosa, expressing more doubt that the structure was intended to house six people.


Zaragosa then pointed out that each of the bathrooms in the house has double sinks, bringing the total to 12 bathroom sinks for six residents.


Mike McHone, who was representing the property owner, said that the intention of the project was to design a rental property which could be sold as condominiums at a later date.


“What we have is a situation where we had carefully designed the project to be a rental project for three people per side. This is not a labeling game so much as it is providing the adequate space for people who might be able to, at some point, purchase the house,” said McHone.


“If we get into the situation where labels are not what they are by the architect, we’d have a real problem throughout this city,” said McHone who pointed out there are great variety of floor plans and ‘extra rooms’ that can be found in houses.


Board Member Heidi Goebel said that while she had doubts that some of the rooms labeled otherwise were not bedrooms, she sympathized with the position this put staff in.


“With bedrooms, we have to go with what the designer has labeled,” said Planning and Development Review’s John McDonald. “It’s kind of tough slope to try and review for what we think might happen.”

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