Archive for Monday, December 27, 2004

Change may affect 2,000 homes

December 27, 2004


More than 2,000 Lawrence homeowners will receive a letter sometime in February that could sound a bit ominous.

It will be from city officials, and it will tell homeowners that because of citywide zoning changes, their houses are not as legal as they once were.

A new zoning code that Lawrence city commissioners are in the process of adopting will make about 2,000 single-family homes built on property zoned for duplexes "nonconforming uses."

That doesn't mean homeowners will be forced to leave their homes and clear their property. But it does mean that adding on to their homes or rebuilding in the case of a fire could become more difficult or, in some cases, prohibited.

"I think this is something people will want to take seriously," said Linda Finger, director of the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Department. "They'll want to weigh their options."

More process

Homeowners affected by the new codes will receive a letter from the planning department. Planning staff members still are reviewing zoning maps to determine how many homes are affected. They said it probably was between 1,200 and 2,000.

David Guntert, a planner working on the project, said it appeared there are clusters of properties affected in several neighborhoods, including East Lawrence, Pinckney, North Lawrence, Holiday Hills and Oread.

The homes will become nonconforming uses because of a change in zoning philosophy. In the current code, written in 1966, planners allowed single-family homes to be built on property zoned for duplexes. But when planning commissioners and city commissioners took public comment on the new code they heard from several members of the public who said that policy should be changed.

People with nonconforming property will be required to register their properties with the Douglas County Planning Department as part of the city's new zoning code.Owners of nonconforming uses that are residential will have two years from the date the new code goes into effect, expected to be Jan. 24. Owners of nonconforming uses that are commercial in nature will have one year to register their properties. Affected property owners should receive letters in February stating that their property is likely a nonconforming use.If a property isn't registered, its nonconforming status could be revoked and its owners could be forced to remove any buildings."You really don't want to miss this deadline," said Linda Finger, director of the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Department.Finger said there was no fee to register but the process involved several steps, so property owners should not wait until the last minute.

Finger said there was concern that if a duplex-zoned area had a number of single family homes, residents might begin assuming they were living in an area that wasn't zoned for duplexes.

Finger said affected property owners would have new regulations to comply with. Specifically, owners of nonconforming properties will not simply be able to pull a building permit when they want to expand their homes. Instead, they'll have to check in with planning department officials to ensure that their plans meet all the zoning code requirements.

Property owners may be forced to go before the city's Board of Zoning Appeals before they are allowed to rebuild. Finger said potential issues that could cause a project to go to the board included an inability to meet setback requirements or inadequate off-street parking on a piece of property.

"They'll need to keep the channels of communication open with us," Finger said.

Insurance 'mess'

The same review process will apply to nonconforming homes that need to be rebuilt because they were destroyed by a fire or a storm.

Finger said it was possible some homeowners would not be allowed to rebuild their homes if they're on a lot that is so small or has other issues that would make it difficult to comply with the new zoning regulations.

Insurance agents said the new regulations could create serious issues for affected homeowners.

"I see multiple problems if someone had a single family home that was destroyed and they could not rebuild at that location," said Joe Baker, an agent with Lawrence-based CEK Insurance. "They may have some serious coverage problems and claims problems."

Travis Oliver, president of Douglas County Insurance and Financial Services, said the issue revolved around the fact that most homes were covered for the amount it would require to replace a home. That amount assumes the house would be rebuilt on the same lot.

If homeowners are forced to rebuild elsewhere, they likely would not have enough money to buy a new lot and build a comparable house. The homeowners would be allowed to sell their original lot to somebody who wanted to build a duplex on it, but that could create costly delays.

"It likely would cause a delay in people getting their checks," Oliver said. "It would make everything a mess."

Seeking changes

Finger agreed the situation could get complicated for homeowners. That's why she said affected homeowners might want to have their zoning changed to reflect their property's single-family land use.

But there will be a trick to that, Finger said. Individual property owners probably won't be successful in seeking a rezoning. City commissioners run into legal problems related to "spot zoning," when they change the zoning of a single lot.

Instead, affected property owners may need to convince a large number of their neighbors to request rezoning. Finger said that may not always be easy.

"If this is your residence we're talking about, I think you would want to consider changing the zoning so you are not a nonconforming use," Finger said. "But if you are an investor, you may not want to have the zoning changed. In fact you may fight it."

That's because lots that are zoned for duplexes generally sell for more money than a lot that is zoned for a single-family home. That economic fact is why Ted Boyle, president of the North Lawrence Improvement Assn., thinks affected property owners shouldn't be too alarmed by the changes.

Boyle said most homeowners probably still would be allowed to rebuild, but would just have to go through a longer process. He said that may be a small price to pay because if they ever want to sell their properties, they'll be able to market it as a lot that could house a duplex, which should increase the selling price.

"I would tend to think their property is going to be worth more money than something that is just zoned residential," Boyle said.

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