January 20, 2016

Athens Residents Air Infill Housing Concerns

City Dope

Photo Credit: Joshua L. Jones/file

An infill house under construction on Milledge Circle.

Say there are two 900-square-foot houses near Athens Regional flanking a vacant lot. Someone wants to build a house on the land. Under new design standards, would that potential property owner have to construct something that’s the same size as surrounding houses? Would the new building have to feature the same building materials or be in the same style as nearby houses? Would these restrictions be a good idea in an intown neighborhood where home prices are at a premium and Chase Street Elementary School a brief bus ride away?

Athens-Clarke County Senior Planner Bruce Lonnee doesn’t know the answers to these questions, posed by architect Lori Bork Newcomer at a recent lunch-and-learn session sponsored by the Athens-Clarke Heritage Foundation, but by the end of 2016, he likely will. Because by then, the county’s strategy for dealing with infill housing should be in place. In the coming months, there will be educational forums so residents can learn more about the issues and public input meetings to voice their concerns.

Newcomer was one of 50 or so people who attended the session on infill development Jan. 12 at the Athens Area Chamber of Commerce. The session brought Lonnee together with homeowners, realtors, architects, county officials and builders to talk about the county’s strategy for handling infill-housing issues. There’s concern among many, Lonnee said, that new houses being built in intown neighborhoods are incompatible and out of scale with existing older housing.

The local government has been addressing infill development for years, Lonnee said, by changing zoning regulations. Now comes the last part—actually, three parts. The planning commission has asked the planning staff to devise “context sensitive development standards,” design a review process for single family building plans and create conservation overlay districts.

The development standards have to be done in a way that’s fair, Lonnee said. But many at the session wondered, fair to whom? Longtime homeowners, potential new residents, realtors or builders who have been pimping out older, smaller, affordable homes into $400,000 mini-mansions with hardwood floors, granite counters and walk-in closets? Other communities, including Austin, TX, have passed design standards dictating building height, setbacks and lot coverage.

In addition to standards, in the coming months one could expect to see the development of a single-family home review process. This would be similar to what commercial builders already undergo, with county officials vetting proposed projects before issuing permits. Lonnee said conservation overlay districts could be tailored to reflect the concerns of a neighborhood, specifying standards for rehabilitated or new construction. People also might want to consider the historic preservation district designation to protect older neighborhoods from incompatible projects, he said—anything new in such a district has to come with a certificate of appropriateness from the Historic Preservation Commission.

Lonnee hopes to have proposed policies and ordinances to the Mayor and Commission by the summer.