Last month Kalamazoo’s City Commission cut down their lot size requirements in several residential areas. Notably, these amendments weren’t done in the name of permitting anything “new” in those neighborhoods—but to support and reinforce what’s already there and remove some headaches from residents.

These lot size amendments, one piece of the city’s “neighborhood zoning repair” work, are a great example of incremental code reform, and one that’s worth a look for any community with older residential areas, where overly restrictive zoning ordinances add burden to maintaining the traditional neighborhood fabric.

I had the chance to help Kalamazoo with this effort, through the League’s work in support of MEDC’s Redevelopment Ready Communities program: for the zoning and GIS enthusiasts in the audience, I’ve included some short methodology notes to help get you started with your own analysis.

These tree-lined streets of front porches and sidewalks are an important part of neighborhood sense of place. Too bad so many of them have been made illegal through zoning.

These tree-lined streets of front porches and sidewalks are an important part of our cities’ neighborhoods. Too bad so many of them have been made illegal through zoning.

The annoyance tax of mismatched residential zoning

Many of our favorite traditional neighborhoods predate the widespread use of zoning: Michigan’s first city and village zoning enabling act was in 1921, and the township zoning enabling act didn’t come until 1943. During the home construction boom that followed World War II, communities adopted zoning ordinances that reflected the current practices of the time—applying them broadly and bluntly not just to new subdivisions, but also to the neighborhoods that already existed, where they were”¦not a great fit.

A 1950s ranch home with a private driveway from the street needs a 50- or 60-foot-wide lot, where a 1920s two-story home with alley access or a shared drive can fit comfortably on a 40- or 45-foot-wide lot, for example. But apply that new 60-foot expectation to the older neighborhood as a legal minimum, and suddenly you’ve rendered wide swaths of homes non-conforming. While an “existing non-conforming” lot, structure, or use can be continued in perpetuity, the ongoing mismatch creates friction for the residents of that older neighborhood.

Non-conforming status can make it harder or more expensive to get a mortgage, or home insurance, or a home improvement loan—because the bank or insurer wants to know the lot will still be usable if the house burns down. Even where the local ordinance provides an escape clause (e.g. that any existing lot under residential zoning can be used for a single-unit house), buying or refinancing that historic house can require extra documentation of that fact.  Setbacks or lot coverage requirements might still make rebuilding challenging, as well as limit opportunities for additions, decks, garages, or other improvements. My friend David, a Realtor, refers to systemic hurdles like these as “annoyance taxes” that accumulate and subtly discourage people from living in these neighborhoods or from investing too much money or energy into their homes.

Where zoning renders the typical parcel "too small" for a home, houses destroyed by neglect, fire, or other catastrophe are hard to replace, leaving gaps in the neighborhood.

Where zoning renders the typical parcel “too small” for a home, houses destroyed by neglect, fire, or other catastrophe are hard to replace, leaving gaps in the neighborhood.

Kalamazoo’s neighborhood zoning repair

As part of Kalamazoo’s neighborhood-by-neighborhood planning efforts, the city’s planning staff has been looking for “zoning repair” needs—where the zoning doesn’t match the existing neighborhood context, and the existing neighborhood is valued as it is. When the League performed a “zoning stress test” for the city (as part of Kalamazoo’s Redevelopment Ready Communities technical assistance support from MEDC), I took a deep dive the zoning ordinance’s lot standards for the Edison Neighborhood, where local staff had identified repeated friction between the requirements and the existing neighborhood fabric. They then extended this approach to other neighborhoods which shared this challenge to finalize their recommendations to the City Commission.

First, I looked at lot sizes, finding that two-thirds of the residential parcels in the neighborhood were “too small” under the existing zoning. In parts of the neighborhood, every home on every block sat on a non-conforming lot, because of the lot sizes used in the initial plat.  In other areas, century-old lot splits created more scattered non-conforming parcels. (Using GIS, I selected all parcels within a given district, then did a “select by attribute” on those parcels to identify lots with areas below their zoning district’s minimum, and set a non-conforming flag for those; then repeated this for each other district.)

Before the update of lot size requirements, two-thirds of residential parcels in Edison were below the minimum lot area for their zoning district.

Before the update of lot size requirements, two-thirds of residential parcels in Edison were below the minimum lot area for their zoning district.

The next step was to test a few new lot size thresholds to see what would bring the zoning into compliance with neighborhood patterns, and suggest some revised minimums that would fix most problems, leaving only a few outliers that might need separate solutions. (This repeated the above process using a few different test lot areas and flagging each parcel for the lot size threshold that would make that parcel conforming. For simplicity, I used thresholds that were already in use within the zoning ordinance, either as some other district’s minimum or as a per-unit minimum in districts that allowed duplexes.)

Green-striped and red-striped parcels would be made conforming by lowering lot size requirements by different degrees.

Green-striped and red-striped parcels would be made conforming by lowering lot size requirements by different degrees.

Moving on from lot area, I next looked at lot width: again, over half the homes in the neighborhood sat on parcels that were “too narrow” under the existing zoning, having been platted for smaller lots. (If you have a parcel layer that includes a frontage or width attribute—possibly from assessing data—you can filter on this; without this, or in the case of irregularly shaped lots, you may need to approximate by drawing bounding boxes around your parcels and then filtering on the widths of those.)

The 60-foot minimum lot width of the R-5 district made nearly every Edison parcel in that district non-conforming.

A 40-foot minimum lot width fits the neighborhood's original pattern much better. (Apologies for color scheme change; few enough reds left they were hard to see!)

A 40-foot minimum lot width fits the neighborhood’s original pattern much better. (Apologies for color scheme change; few enough reds left they were hard to see!)

As applied, in Kalamazoo and in your community

Kalamazoo’s staff repeated my analysis for a few other neighborhoods to calibrate the thresholds, as shown in their presentation to the Planning Commission. The City Commission adopted a package of lot size and coverage amendments at the end of January. While significant, as the staff memo notes, these are not the last word on these neighborhoods, but a temporary patch: “These amendments are intended to relieve the pressure of the large quantity of nonconforming lots that exist throughout while City staff work to thoroughly update all the residential zoning districts in the first half 2019.”

Kalamazoo staff created this amazing overlay of a 1958 Sanborn fire insurance map on a current aerial photo of part of the Northside neighborhood, showing how much of the historic neighborhood pattern had been lost over time.

Kalamazoo staff created this amazing overlay of a 1958 Sanborn fire insurance map on a current aerial photo of part of the Northside neighborhood, showing how much of the historic neighborhood pattern had been lost over time.

In some neighborhoods, this ongoing work might mean additional tweaks; in others, more significant changes to the zoning might be needed to bring it in line with the neighborhood’s vision and plans. In general, these lot size amendments won’t bring any dramatic changes to Kalamazoo’s neighborhoods—where they enable new homes to be built on vacant lots, they will be reinforcing the built patterns already in the neighborhood. What they will do is peel away one layer of annoyance tax from residents already living there, an important piece of enabling people to love where they live.

Kalamazoo isn’t alone in facing this challenge—Muskegon also recently reduced the lot size requirements in some neighborhoods to better fit the existing neighborhood patterns. Not coincidentally, fixing out-of-scale lot requirements is the #1 recommendation for neighborhood form in the User’s Guide to Code Reform that we produced with CNU and MEDC. Both Kalamazoo and Muskegon provided input to that project about their code hurdles, and I used an early draft of the Guide to target my work with Kalamazoo.

While the GIS analysis certainly provides attractive maps, there are certainly ways to take on this zoning repair activity without it. For example, in smaller areas, comparing the minimum lot size in the zoning ordinance to the original plat map for a traditional neighborhood is an easy step. The plat will include lot widths and depths that can be used to quickly compare a “typical” parcel’s size to the zoning ordinance’s minimums.  Alternately, just looking for any place your zoning ordinance applies a 60-foot minimum lot width or 6,000 square foot minimum lot area to a neighborhood built pre-World War II is a good indicator that you have an issue.

We know that traditional zoning and development codes, as applied by nearly every one of our hundreds of members across Michigan, can be harmful to building strong, prosperous communities. We have major statewide initiatives to support locals in wrestling their regulations around to something that does what they want—Redevelopment Ready Communities to help identify and clear away procedural obstacles that prevent good development, and the MIplace partnership’s ongoing focus on form-based approaches that support the creation of great places.

So why has progress been so slow—why do rules that actively hinder the development that we say we want persist in most of our cities and villages?  Last week, we hosted a workshop that connected five of our cities with a team of national development code-writing experts convened by Congress for the New Urbanism to dig into this question.

Together, the group cnu_action_shottalked through the cities’ development priorities, and what code-related barriers stood in the way of success on these issues. While this working session was just one part of a larger effort by CNU to support national reform, a few observations stuck out to me.

  • Better development codes don’t have to be via a full scale “Form-Based Code.” The starting point of the conversation was how to streamline adoption of FBCs, as the best tool for building the places we want. Considering the limited resources (political, staff time, financial) of most of our communities, though, incremental improvements to existing, traditional zoning may allow more progress.

    Local staff can look to the Lean Code Tool for tactics to apply locally, or may consider implementing a FBC only for a single key district, rather than community-wide. In any case, the goal is to increase the attention the regulations pay to form, reducing the emphasis on separation of uses.

  • Prioritize—don’t try to fix everything. Even the largest city in our focus group, with the most staff capacity, said they were overwhelmed by the scale of their code reform needs. (When asked to bring a priority need to focus on, they brought six.) Focusing time and resources to make the rules work better in a few important places within the community can be more effective than trying to fix everything at once.

    Communities looking to undertake code reform should focus attention on strengthening their traditional downtown (if they have one), on areas facing heavy development pressure (to ensure that interest supports local placemaking needs), and on neighborhood centers (especially in low-income or minority neighborhoods where support is needed to correct past disinvestment).

  • Residential areas are difficult. The planning profession has done a spectacular job of convincing people that a neighborhood should be made up exclusively of single-family, owner-occupied houses. As a profession, we’ve admitted that we were wrong, and that we’ve done a lot of damage by imposing that norm on traditional neighborhoods through zoning ordinances, and we have tools for walking back some of those mistakes.
    Permitting fourplexes is an easier conversation when you can point to examples a neighborhood already has.

    Permitting missing middle types is an easier conversation when you can point to examples a neighborhood already has.

    But old habits are hard to shift, especially when working with residents whose homes are both quality of life and investment. When identifying priorities, post-war subdivisions may not be on the list in most cities—instead, we should think about repairing downtown-adjacent traditional neighborhoods. These are both the places that already have precedent for missing middle housing choices and small businesses alongside single-family houses, and where conventional zoning has created holes in the neighborhood fabric.

  • Finally, communities need good examples. Nearly all the specific needs that our panel of communities brought to the national resource team were issues for which known-good tools or approaches already exist. The difficulty is in sharing that knowledge across our 500+ member communities, especially to the staff that are wearing several different hats and spread too thinly to search out those tools.

This last observation is where the League has the clearest role. We’ve been very successful in spreading awareness of placemaking to our membership over the past few years, but communities still need good, on-the-ground examples of, say, how to allow new homes that fit onto historic 33-foot-wide lots, or how to provide for more missing middle housing options without fear that college student housing will saturate the neighborhood.

I’m definitely looking forward to further work with the CNU team, as well–thanks to Matt from DPZ, Karen from Opticos, Susan from Placemakers, Marcy from Urbsworks, and Mary from Farrell-Madden for three days of making my head spin with their expertise.

In many of our historic neighborhoods, you can glimpse carriage houses behind the main homes. These two-story glorified garages typically date to the late 1800s, ranging from simpler barn-like structures to ornate smaller twins of the main house, and often included servants’ quarters on the upper story. Today, these carriage houses are big enough to support an apartment, spacious home office, or workshop…That is, when they’ve survived.

A sadly typical example of the form--the "historic building" plaque may be the only structurally sound part of the building.

A sadly typical example of the form–the “historic building” plaque may be the only structurally sound part of the building.

To the chagrin of many in the historic preservation world, carriage houses are often allowed to decay, then demolished. If we look at the overall pattern and landscape of historic neighborhoods as something worth preserving, this is a loss, no matter how immaculately kept the main house may be. And to the property owner—especially one who bought the property with the carriage house already beyond reasonable repair—there are few incentives to invest in restoring them.

Enter the Accessory Dwelling Unit.

Perhaps the best tool cities have to support preservation of these structures is to make them economically productive assets for the homeowner by allowing—or even incentivizing—their reuse as small apartments. This is also an opportunity for older communities to start adding the “missing middle” of housing options back in to their mix.

Encouraging owners of historic homes to build ADUs in their carriage barns can be a more powerful preservation tool than any amount of enforcement—while supporting increased property values, population, and all the other benefits that ADUs offer to any neighborhood.

Some great examples of the form. I think. It can be hard to tell from the street--which is why ADUs are sometimes called "invisible density".

Some great examples of the carriage house ADU. At least I think they are–it can be hard to tell from the street whether these are lived in, which is why ADUs are sometimes called “invisible density”.

Coming from the other side, historic districts can be a great place for a community to take baby steps on ADUs. If a community has concerns about accessory dwelling units “fitting in” but isn’t ready to dive into writing a form-based code to address those concerns, an existing historic district already offers standards for making sure new units fit the local context. (Considering the historic activities these structures were originally used for, including living space, ADUs will often be a more context-appropriate option than a more passive use.)

So where should a community look to start?

First, ADUs need to be provided for in zoning. Under a conventional zoning ordinance, if there is no single zoning district that aligns well with the historic neighborhood in question, an overlay district may be the best way to match up new standards. Look to ordinance language like Grand Rapids’ for the type of provisions to include—within that sample, the critical enabling language is “Residential Density. The ADU shall not be counted toward maximum residential density requirements.”

(Under a form-based code, enabling carriage house ADUs can be done through a new building type entry: look to our Traverse City PlacePlan for an example, on pages 185-187 of the PDF.)

From there, consider exemptions from any policies that may make carriage house ADUs prohibitively expensive. For example, the cost to run dedicated water and sewer lines (plus tap fees!) will eat up a much larger slice of the total construction cost for a 500-square-foot ADU than for a new home. If ADUs are to be part of a historic preservation strategy, consider waiving tap fees, or allowing the ADU to tie into the existing laterals for the main house. (This will require working with your building official to identify proper backflow protections on the shared sewer lateral.) New-build requirements like a site plan—or even survey—might not make sense in the context of rehabilitating a century-old structure. Off-street parking requirements should be applied cautiously, if at all.

Finally, educating all involved on the rules and the intent will help get carriage houses off the endangered list: this should involve not just working with the historic district commission in developing standards, but proactive outreach to the owners of candidate carriage barns to put this opportunity on their radar. Realtors will also be important partners in helping prospective homeowners see their carriage barns as an opportunity, rather than a nuisance.