Monday, February 05, 2007

Here's a novel approach...

Rather than jump right off the deep end with an antagonistic opinion about this story, I'm going to ask a few questions first. My hope is that some of the locals -- or perhaps someone who knows what the locals are thinking -- can offer greater insight into the situation than was afforded by the Sun yesterday.

Plans for two multiunit duplex developments in Elkridge for moderate-income families have been shelved, at least for now, because of vigorous public opposition.

...John Liparini, president and chief executive officer of Brantly, abandoned the two projects after numerous residents objected and County Councilwoman Courtney Watson vowed legislation to prohibit additional duplexes in much of Elkridge, although she acknowledged the bill probably could not be applied retroactively to affect Brantly's plans.

"It's not worth it to me or my company," Liparini said during a community meeting that was attended by about 100 people.

Many of those people were not residents adjacent to the sites of the proposed developments, and Liparini said he wishes to meet with them before deciding how to develop the properties.

The parcels affected are both zoned R-12, which is single-family residential lots of 12,000 square feet. The county, however, has permitted duplexes with approval of a conditional-use permit.

The Brantly Development Group was seeking permits to construct 20 duplex units on 7.22 acres on Old Washington Road near the Norbel School and eight duplexes on 1.5 acres, also on Old Washington Road.

The structures would be designed to appear as single-family homes to blend in with the neighborhood, Liparini said, but each unit would be about half the size of a traditional home.
OK, first, the details. When the story says "20 duplex units" does it mean 20 housing units or 20 duplexes, meaning 40 units? This is a pretty substantial difference for many obvious reasons, but the main reason I ask is for a better understanding of the actual density of these developments.

If it's 20 units, then the density would be 2.77 units/acre, leaving a maximum possible lot size of 15,726 square feet, well above the 12,000 square feet minimum required by R-12 zoning. However, this leaves out mandatory set asides -- open space, roads, rights-of-way, etc. -- that will surely reduce lot sizes. Any guidance on how much land is non-developable (and not relevant to density calculations) on either of the contested properties is also appreciated.

Next, the details of the opposition. Some in the story make reference to the fact that moderately-priced housing will reduce the value of their properties. This may or may not be true and it's not usually an argument I buy into, but I'll listen.

The vague notion of incompatibility is another source of objection.

Watson, elected to her first term on the council in November, said, "Two-family dwellings is not compatible with Elkridge. ... We don't want noncompatible development."

She said her legislation would ban duplexes on property zoned R-12, and she urged the residents to press the other council members for support. "You don't have to convince me," Watson said. "It's the other council members."

Calvin Ball, the council chairman, attended the meeting and indicated his support of the legislation.

Valerie McGuire, president of the Greater Elkridge Community Association, said the duplexes were not acceptable. "People are upset because you're suddenly placing these duplexes in the middle of these residential homes. ... The opposition was unanimous, and I think they heard that loud and clear."

(Notice the differentiation between "duplexes" and "residential homes.")

In this case, how are duplexes noncompatible with Elkridge (or even this specific area of Elkridge)? Are we talking about aesthetics, because it sounds like they'll look just like single family homes? Infrastructure?

I mean, there are already condos, apartments, townhouses and even mobile homes in Elkridge. So, why the special concern for duplexes? Is it all a function of the location of this specific project?

You can probably tell which way I'm leaning on this development, but I'm honestly looking for more information before I shoot off at the mouth.

That said, I think banning duplexes from R-12 zoning -- like most reactionary policies -- is a fantastically horrible idea.

11 comments:

Courtney Watson said...

The Sun article was out of context. The reporter did not talk to me about the issue before he wrote the story. He did attend a community meeting of GECA (Greater Elkridge Community Association) where the issue was discussed with two Council members and the developer present.

For the record, the issue is not duplexes.

The issue is a loophole in the conditional use regulations that the developer believes allows him to double the density in the R-12 district. I do not believe the residents would object to duplexes if they were built as are other homes in R-12, at one unit per one lot.

The R-12 zoning district is designed for single family homes on average 12,000 square foot lots. Open space options allow the lots to be as small as 8000 square feet per unit.

The proposal in question was originally for 20 single family homes on 8000 square foot lots which is allowed by right. It then evolved to 40 units in the form of 20 duplexes - but still on 8000 square foot lots.

As part of the plan to not have to use two lots per duplex, 20 condominium associations were proposed to be formed on one street - one very short street.

This is essentially doubling the density and was not the intended meaning of the conditional use in question for duplexes. This use was added in 1971 in order to allow conversions of existing homes to duplexes for the caring of aging parents.

The proposed development is located on Old Washington Road in the heart of historic Elkridge and surrounded by 1/2 acre single family homes, many of which are historic in nature.

The community is objecting, and rightly so, to 40 homes on 20 8,000 square foot lots. The density is incompatible with the surrounding neighborhoods.

If R-12 was meant for 1 unit per 4000 square feet, it would have been named R-4.

The residents in Elkridge are concerned, and rightly so.

Anonymous said...

Some very good questions-and I appreciate you asking for more information, because there is a lot behind this story.

Haydude: "When the story says "20 duplex units" does it mean 20 housing units or 20 duplexes, meaning 40 units? This is a pretty substantial difference.."

Answer: It means a total of 40 units! I couldn't have said it better-a pretty substantial difference and that is definitely the crux of the issue. When you have a zoning category that allows 4 units per acre and you double it to 8 that is definitely a major difference for the neighborhood.

Yes, Elkridge does have all sorts of housing types and is richer for it. However, it doesn't mean that all of the neighborhoods need to be as dense as possible. These particular proposals are in a lower density neighborhood on Old Washington Bvld (which has significant traffic constraints) and these homes would be out of character with the surrounding properties.

As to whether duplexes would look like surrounding homes- it would be tough to do in this case. The surrounding neighborhoods have larger, older homes with large lawns. The duplexes would be smaller homes and the front yards would need to be paved for the needed parking. And with the visibility of these properties from the old boulevard it would be very difficult/impossible for this high a density to not stick out like a sore thumb. This would be a case of inappropriate infill.

And, yes, a lot of the feelings being expressed by the people have to do with how are we going to handle the dwellings that are zoned for, not to mention what would be additional density. There is a large need for schools (especially a high school) in the area with the projected growth that is being considered (not to mention the growth being allowed that hasn't been factored into the school projections-and this development would fall into that category)

As to banning duplexes from R-12 zoning, duplexes were originally allowed in R-12 to allow things such as in-law apartments. However, since accessory apartment legislation was passed years ago (and isn't talked about much as a way to provide affordable housing, in my humble opinion) that need has been met and Courtney is right that removing duplexes from R-12 zoning would be appropriate.

Another aspect of this development that the article didn't address and that I am still trying to understand is that each duplex would need to form its own condominium association. This comes from a new concept being tried out by some developers-that of a "landominiom" -similar to a condominium where the property doesn't undergo subdivision. I'm still trying to figure it out, but as I am hearing it, it might be a way around subdivision regulations.

FreeMarket said...

“Does anyone suppose that, in real life, the answers to any of the great questions that worry us today are going to come out of homogenous settlements?” – Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities

The problem here is a lack of planning and vision. Who can blame the residents for being upset? There is no plan for a neighborhood because the zoning laws make a plan useless, so instead we end up with sprawl. Someone needs to take a hard look at the way the zoning laws are working.

Hayduke said...

Thank you, Courtney and Anon, for the clarification. As usual, the gritty details of the story are left out of the newspaper, which more a function of space than anything else.

I still think an outright ban on duplexes in R-12 is unnecessary. Closing the loophole in the conditional use regs seems much more prudent.

I'm against a duplex ban for the same reason I'm generally against traditional, euclidian zoning: I think we need less built-in restrictions on land use. Whereas traditional zoning leads to fragmented communities/land uses and sprawl, something like Columbia's New Town Zoning affords flexibility to each parcel/project while at the same time requiring it to adhere to a larger plan/framework. Given the almost non-existence of significant developable parcels, I think a system that makes it possible for projects to be highly-tailored to their surroundings and to be examined from a local and county-wide perspective on an individual basis prior to approval makes more sense. This is clearly not a fully-developed argument...more like a discussion prompt.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Courtney (so glad you won!) and Anon#1 for the prompt and excellent explanations.

Hey, can each of those 40 units, as a matter of right, also then rent space in their homes to another family, thereby increasing to 80 total possible families?

The list of loopholes is long indeed.

Another one worth examining is giving density credit for open space that's not developable anyway. For example, if a 10-acre R-20 (about 2 homes per acre) lot has a 3-acre natural pond or other water feature on it (considered wetlands), the developer gets credit for those 3 undeveloped acres as 30% open space, allowing development of the remaining 7 acres not at R-20, but at R-14, increasing the number of houses from 14 to 21.

Is it right to promote denser development like this near what are supposed to be federal-, state-, and local-protected sensitive environmental areas? Riparian buffers are where many species of wildlife need to roam. Denser development credit should only occur at distances from these areas, not adjacent to them.

numbers.girl said...

Freemarket, you are absolutely correct. However, I disagree with your statement that zoning laws make a plan useless. I think the lack of a plan and lack of a vision make zoning useless.

Planning the future of a neighborhood, village, or county is impossible without seeing the big picture. In the transition team's report to the county executive, DPZ acknowledged that there is no big picture, no comprehensive plan when it comes to developing the county.

In the absence of such vision, we are left with bickering neighbors and well-meaning but incongruous citizens’ groups clashing over the fate of every parcel of land in the county.

numbers.girl said...

Freemarket, you are absolutely correct. However, I disagree with your statement that zoning laws make a plan useless. I think the lack of a plan and lack of a vision make zoning useless.

Planning the future of a neighborhood, village, or county is impossible without seeing the big picture. In the transition team's report to the county executive, DPZ acknowledged that there is no big picture, no comprehensive plan when it comes to developing the county.

In the absence of such vision, we are left with bickering neighbors and well-meaning but incongruous citizens’ groups clashing over the fate of every parcel of land in the county.

FreeMarket said...

Numbers- I agree with you on all counts. If there is no plan, then there must be no basis for the zoning laws to begin with. Therefore, the zoning laws have become outdated and arbitrary. I don’t mean to sound accusatory, but I really wonder what the Council and the DPZ have been doing for the past 20 years or so. To my way of thinking, it is premature and unproductive to speak of zoning reform independently of a comprehensive plan of what the County is to look like in the future.

Anonymous said...

"no comprehensive plan when it comes to developing the county"

Really? What, then, have the General Plans been that the County has published and updated for years and years?

If you haven't read a few of them, they're worth the read. To some, they even resemble comprehensive plans.

numbers.girl said...

Anon 11:22- Have you read the transition team report? The quote about no comprehensive plan for the county came directly from that.

Lots of things may "resemble" a comprehensive plan. However, until the county is on board, it ain't the real thing.

Anonymous said...

I was aware, from many sources, that the transition team report mentioned no comprehensive plan. No, I've not yet read the transition team report.

If a regularly updated Howard County General Plan, ratified by the County Council, along with Plans for the Route 1 and 40 corridors don't constitute the county being on board, what does?