The Greensboro City Council frequently talks about the need for more affordable housing in Greensboro and the need to provide more housing options for homeless people. It was one of the reasons the City Council said the voters needed to pass the recent bond referendum.
But when a nonprofit is attempting to provide affordable housing that would target the homeless, the city, instead of helping has put up roadblocks, in part because the city is behind on new zoning regulations.
The city has no zoning ordinance for tiny houses, a new housing concept that is growing in popularity across the country. Because the city has no zoning ordinance that applies, Tiny Houses Greensboro (THG), a nonprofit that is attempting to build six tiny houses at 4120 Causey St., has been ordered to build 12 parking spaces for the six-tiny house development.
The homes will be very small – approximately 250 square feet – or less than half the size of a typical one-bedroom apartment. But instead of complying with the parking regulations governing apartments, because the tiny homes are detached, the city is regulating them as if they were detached townhomes, which requires two parking spaces per unit. If the city had instead decided to classify these tiny houses as apartments, they would have only been required to provide 1.25 parking spaces per unit, and the seven parking spaces that were planned would have met the city requirement.
THG First Vice Chair Teri Hammer (no relation to this writer) had applied to the Board of Adjustment for a variance from the parking regulations, asking that instead of complying with the townhome requirement of two spaces per unit, that THG – which will manage the development – be allowed to comply with the less stringent multifamily requirements.
The real problem is that, although the first application for a tiny house development in Greensboro was made in the summer of 2015, in the ensuing year and a half the Planning Department has failed to present a new zoning regulation to deal with this new housing concept. So THG was forced to use the townhome designation, which clearly doesn’t fit. Has anyone ever seen a 250-square-foot detached townhouse in Greensboro?
As Hammer explained to the Board of Adjustment, the houses would be rented to people who would pay 30 percent of their income in rent, and the target audience is people who are currently homeless. Hammer said that in her experience, people who are homeless don’t have cars, and they expected their renters not to have cars. On questioning from the board, she said that it was certainly possible that renters could get back on their feet and purchase cars. But she added that once the residents are back on their feet, the intention is that they will transition out of the 250-square-foot houses and on to something bigger.
The majority on the Board of Adjustment seemed to believe that these 250-square-foot homes would likely house two people and both would be driving cars, which would result in the need for 12 parking spaces.
Chuck Truby, a member of the Board of Adjustment, had been recused from the matter because his firm is doing the engineering work for the project, even though that work is being done pro bono.
After some discussion with Assistant City Attorney Andrew Kelly, it was determined that since Truby had recused himself from the matter, he could legally speak in favor of the requested variance.
Truby said that there was no need for 12 parking spaces and building them would amount to cutting down trees and paving land needlessly.
Truby said it was possible to build the development with 12 parking spaces but that it would add unnecessary expense to the project.
Hammer said that building the additional parking spaces would force them to eliminate a community garden, which she said they hoped would be a gathering point for the community.
Hammer also noted that THG is a nonprofit, and like most nonprofits needs to keep the costs as low as possible to make this innovative plan to house the homeless work. Board members kept stating that it was possible for the previously homeless people renting homes to own cars.
Nobody said it, but it is also possible that a homeless person could own a plane or a boat. Fortunately, the zoning ordinance for townhouses does not require boat slips or plane hangars, so TGH won’t have the expense of building those, but it will have to build 12 parking spaces for the six homeless people they plan to have as renters.
One of the more telling requests for a variance at the Monday, Jan. 23 Greensboro Board of Adjustment meeting came from Mark Crouse of 2003 Independence Road, who was requesting a variance from the front setback for his house with, and this is a quote from the Board of Adjustment agenda, “a required average front setback of approximately 49.76 feet.” That’s right, even the city doesn’t know what the actual setback is on this property and can only approximate it. The idea of an approximate setback being carried out to the one hundredth of a foot is somewhat confusing, but what this illustrates is that the setback for residential homes in Greensboro is so utterly confusing that even the city isn’t certain what it is.
This was proven when there was a dispute over the setback for a new home being planned, and in three attempts the city came up with three different measurements. The property owners finally gave up and decided to build somewhere else and the lot is still vacant. If Greensboro wants to discourage people from infill development, there probably isn’t a better way than having a setback requirement that keeps moving.
The old setback requirement before the Land Development Ordinance was adopted in 2014 for this house on Independence was 20 feet. Anyone with a tape measure can go out and measure 20 feet – no guesswork, no approximation. But nobody is exactly sure what the setback is for any given house under the current zoning regulations.
When the current Land Development Ordinance was first introduced, City Councilmember Mike Barber said the best thing to do with it was to throw it in the trashcan and start over. Unfortunately for the city that wasn’t done, and after many revisions it was finally passed by the City Council and it has been a problem ever since.
At one Board of Adjustment meeting, it was discovered that an entire neighborhood was improperly rezoned by this ordinance, making many of the homes nonconforming.
The good news is that the Board of Adjustment didn’t see any harm in allowing Crouse to encroach “approximately 11.96 feet” into the front setback of “approximately 49.76 feet,” and granted the approximate variance with a unanimous vote.
However, it does make you wonder what happens if the next city employee to go out and measure comes up with a different approximate setback and the encroachment is no longer approximately 11.96 feet but approximately 12.32 feet. Maybe somewhere in the ordinance it states exactly how close to the approximate setback a homeowner is allowed to build.
The good news at the Board of Adjustment meeting was that Halpern Tyrone LLC was granted a variance that helps move the development at the corner of Hobbs Road and Friendly Avenue along.
This was one of the most contentious rezoning requests in Greensboro in recent years. The first rezoning request was filed in 2012 and the property was finally rezoned Planned Unit Development for retail and residential use in 2015.
The variance was a request to build an 8-foot wall on the northern property line of the proposed development between it and the homes at Hobbs Landing. According to the zoning ordinance, the maximum allowable wall height is 7 feet.
Tom Terrell, an attorney with Smith Moore Leatherwood representing Halpern, said that this wall was to protect the privacy of the homes in Hobbs Landing. As part of an agreement with Hobbs Landing, Halpern had agreed to build an 8-foot wall if it could get the variance.
The variance was granted by a unanimous vote.
According to a representative of Halpern, construction on the development is likely to start in the fall of this year.