A homeowner’s request this month for setback variances to
remodel rebuild a house on Sutherland Place stirred a hornet’s nest of opposition. Residents’ concerns appeared to focus entirely on the proposed design of the new house, and its radical departure from the “look” of the existing neighborhood. This case and others before it have prompted the city to consider establishing a Design Review panel to regulate the appearance of planned new housing or substantial additions. The conversation is just beginning and the Planning and Development Committee will take up the question at its meeting today, 6:30 p.m.
The meeting and discussion
Six residents spoke at length about their views on establishing a Design Review Board, some in favor, some against, and some in the middle. As mentioned, the issue was revived after residents earlier this month vehemently opposed a new house design proposed to replace an existing cottage on Sutherland Place. The show of opposition earned a rare denial from the BZA to two minor variance requested. The owner of that house–an architect with the Appleseed Workshop–was one of the six speaking tonight.
Was the council considering writing new rules for residential design, establishing protections for historic houses, or adding a new board merely as a “filter” to reduce requests coming before the council? It seemed the members were not sure themselves, and the topic was carried over with a little more clarity after all the speakers were finished.
Here are the highlights:
- Two residents spoke against establishing a board to rule on housing design, citing Homewood’s diversity in housing and lifestyle as a draw for the community. One said that trees, landscaping and the natural environment gave Homewood neighborhoods their charm, not necessarily housing design.
- Two residents spoke enthusiastically in favor of both commercial and residential design districts, one saying his experience with three historic neighborhood districts in the Five Points South Neighborhood Association didn’t decrease design diversity at all. The districts’ design boards were governed by residents themselves, not city government, he said. A second resident said limits placed on design to protect the general look of historic neighborhoods could enhance design creativity. A builder spoke on both sides of the question and concluded he could work with such a review board, that many new houses were too big for their lots.
- The owner of the “other worldly” house proposed on Sutherland talked for some time about his experience with the BZA denial, at one point saying that at least with a design board he’d know what the rules were. He said the BZA stepped beyond its jurisdiction in denying his variance request based on public opinion when it had already approved much more substantial code variances in that same meeting. He will make adjustments to the design to stay within the code, adjustments that will add $10,000 to the cost of the house.
- Ward 1 representative Britt Thames said he thought the public had two separate concerns, 1) Whether to establish a panel to review on the appearance of new houses, and 2) Whether the BZA is allowing too many variances to the zoning ordinance.
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