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Planning committee backs code change to limit small lot amnesty

Monday, February 24, 2014 by Elizabeth Pagano

The city could soon change how it treats substandard lots, and though it’s still in the early process, some people are already concerned about what that change might mean.


A proposed change backed by the Planning Commission Codes and Ordinances Committee would amend the City Code so that houses currently built on two or three substandard lots could not be torn down and replaced with two or three houses that take advantage of the city’s small lot exemption.


Though the committee opted to move forward with the code change unanimously, the 5-0 vote only starts the process of making a change to the code. In order for any amendment to be final it will return to the committee before moving on through the rest of the boards and commissions process.


“Small lot amnesty is meant for existing lots,” said Greg Dutton, who works in the city’s Planning and Development Review Department. “It would be curtailing the way that an option has been used, in a way that option was never intended to be used.”


Planning and Development Review’s Jerry Rusthoven put it into a greater philosophical context.


“We don’t want to create a situation where people do something to be eligible for amnesty,” said Rusthoven. “We believe amnesty is about the past, not about the future.”


Rusthoven explained that was exactly what the change was meant to address, and that they had recently seen several cases of houses being scrapped in order to build more on smaller lots. Because of the current wording of the code, the city is unable to prevent that.


“If that had been how the code was worded when my neighborhood went through the neighborhood planning process, we would have adopted small lot amnesty,” said Commissioner Danette Chimenti. “Our concern was solely that we were encouraging tear-downs… I would guess a lot of neighborhoods share that feeling. We would love for people to be able to build on empty lots, of course. But it’s a different matter than when you talk about encouraging tear-downs.”


Chimenti hoped the change would help neighborhoods embrace small lot amnesty after previously rejecting it, and would be a fix for neighborhoods that adopted the amnesty with the understanding that it would apply to empty lots.


Commissioner Stephen Oliver said he wanted to take a closer look at the potential impact of the change as it continued through the city’s code amendment process.


“These things have lots of domino effects, and it’s hard to understand the issue in one evening,” said Oliver. He explained that if the change encouraged more neighborhoods to adopt small lot amnesty, it would be a good thing. But if it discouraged infill on lots where houses would have been torn down anyway, he said that could be a problem. Later, he made the point that “sub-standard” lots were exactly what the city needed more of in the future, if land costs continue to outpace what people in the city can afford.


“I can’t tell whether or not initiating this helps that cause or hurts that cause,” said Oliver. “It could go either way.”


Housing advocate Stuart Hersh also worried that the change could have a negative consequence. He made the point that if the rules were changed, a large house built across three lots could only be replaced with another large house. And, with the city considering a maximum occupancy rate of four unrelated people in single-family homes, such a house would be designed for those who could afford a large house in the central city.

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