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Lawrence City Commission to consider code tweak that would allow 2 affordable homes to be built on more single lots

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A proposed change would loosen restrictions on developing two small, affordable homes on certain types of single lots, potentially affecting more than 1,000 lots in Lawrence.

Current city codes create problems for organizations such as Tenants to Homeowners that are trying to increase Lawrence’s affordable housing stock. City commissioners in June asked city staff members to look at options to create some flexibility.

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City commissioners in 2019 approved a text amendment to allow two affordable homes to be built on one lot, if projects meet several conditions. But city code currently does not allow development of two smaller homes on certain types of “nonconforming” lots: ones that were platted before the city’s first zoning ordinance or development code went into effect, or that complied with standards in effect at the time they were created but do not comply with current city codes.

Planner Mary Miller explained the current codes, and the proposed text amendment that would alter them, with a presentation to the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission during an Aug. 23 meeting.

Miller said there are 252 nonconforming lots sized between 6,000 and 7,000 square feet in zoning districts where developing two homes on a single nonconforming lot is prohibited. There are 1,252 other lots of the same size where development of two homes would be allowed but currently would require a special use permit, she said.

Special use permits include a special application and a process to notify neighbors of plans before any building begins. They require public hearings before the planning commission, and there is an opportunity for nearby neighbors to protest. SUPs must also be approved by the Lawrence City Commission.

A slide from Mary Miller’s presentation to the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission on Aug. 23, 2023 (Screenshot / City of Lawrence YouTube)

Some planning commissioners said they were surprised to learn how many lots are currently considered “nonconforming.”

Rebecca Buford, executive director of Tenants to Homeowners, told planning commissioners that the organization had purchased some lots with grant funds without realizing the restrictions on nonconforming lots. The organization has also received $750,000 from the state to build four small 500-square-foot houses on two lots TTH has purchased.

“What we lose if we can’t have an amendment is being able to build four more houses,” Buford said. “I mean, I know that seems small, but in this moment of crisis in supply, that’s huge for those four people, those four households. Absolutely huge.”

In addition, Buford said lots have gone up in cost significantly since TTH purchased the nonconforming lots a few years ago, and the organization has struggled to find lots that would work for TTH’s purposes because of the restrictions in city codes.

The proposed change would also avoid creating concentrations of affordable housing and rather allow TTH to scatter homes in neighborhoods all over the city, Buford said.

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City staff members had recommended opening up the option for developers to seek SUPs to develop two homes on single lots smaller than 7,000 square feet regardless of the type of residential zoning district they’re in. For lots larger than 7,000 square feet, developers would only need to seek building permits, under city staff’s initial text amendment.

The planning commission, however, voted 6-3 to recommend approval of the text amendment but lower the lot size requirement so developers could seek building permits rather than go through the SUP process to build two homes on lots as small as 6,000 square feet.

Developers would still need to seek an SUP to build two homes on any lot smaller than 6,000 square feet. According to Miller’s presentation, if the change is approved, there would be more than 1,000 lots smaller than 6,000 square feet that could be developed with two homes if developers go through the SUP process.

Members of the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission listen to Rebecca Buford (far back, center), executive director of Tenants to Homeowners, during their Aug. 23, 2023 meeting. (Screenshot / City of Lawrence YouTube)

Miller told planning commissioners that the city’s new land development code, once it’s finished, will create completely different zoning districts, so the city did not want to create a new kind of zoning to accommodate this type of request. This text amendment is an interim option while the code revisions are still in progress.

Miller said the city’s parking requirements would still apply to both dwellings built on any single lots, and dwellings must have separate utilities.

Lawrence city commissioners will consider the text amendment during their Tuesday meeting.

If approved, the change would apply to any developers seeking to build two affordable homes on single lots — not just projects by nonprofits such as TTH. Deputy City Attorney Randy Larkin told the planning commission that any developers can enter into agreements with the city that properties will be “permanently affordable.” That means “affordable” as defined by city code (20-1701) for at least 99 years.

Here’s the complete agenda item:

20231003-City-Comm-agenda-lots-text-amendment

The commission’s meeting is set to begin at 5:45 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 3 at City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St. The meeting will also be livestreamed on the city’s YouTube channel, youtube.com/@lawrenceksvideo.

Commissioners hear public comment in person and via Zoom; click here to register for the Zoom meeting. Written public comments can be submitted to ccagendas@lawrenceks.org until noon the day of the meeting.

See the full meeting agenda at this link.

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Mackenzie Clark (she/her), reporter/founder of The Lawrence Times, can be reached at mclark (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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