Association Looks to Tighten Definition of Over Development

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(image above from Fairbanks)

At Thursday’s December 5th 2019 board meeting, a robust discussion was had concerning the Association’s desire to restrict individual lot over development and what mechanisms the Association could use to do so.

Both the current Board and current Art Jury have concerns that members are building big houses along with pools, sports courts, ponds, and guest houses that could result in over development of lots.

The Board had asked staff to look into this issue and they, headed by building commissioner Maryam Babaki, produced this eight page report in advance of the meeting.

What’s The Problem?

Anyone who has submitted large scale projects to the Art Jury is well aware that the Art Jury frequently rejects applications based on “bulk and mass” of buildings. In general, massive building footprints as well as two story buildings are frowned upon and the Art Jury typically wants buildings to be harmonious with the existing land forms. In particular this means sized appropriately for the existing buildable pad.

The Art Jury addresses lot coverage where you might have a sprawling house with a tennis court, pool, guest house, driveways, ground mount solar panels, and storage sheds on a case by case basis. Meaning it’s a judgement call. This results in two problems. First, rulings aren’t consistent from Art Jury to Art Jury, and second, it is hard for architects and builders to know how big they can build structures since they don’t have numerical guidelines.

The Protective Covenant attempts to address lot coverage by stating that “buildings or structures” shall not occupy more than 20% of the area of the property.

Ah, but what is the definition of “structure”? The building department historically has defined “structures” as anything with a roof, so pools, tennis courts, solar panels, hardscape and driveways are not counted in the 20% coverage number. 

The discussion that ensued during the Board meeting mostly centered upon expanding the definition of “structure” to give the Art Jury more tools to reject expansive development.

The Discussion

Building Commissioner Maryam Babaki gave a short overview of the eight page report (linked above). Director Steve Dunn opined that over development depends on land form. He stated that 17,000 sq ft of lot coverage might be fine for a 2 acre lot if the lot is completely flat, but not OK if it has a small pad with mostly unbuildable slopes.

Dunn tried to quantify the problem by asking Babaki how often have projects failed the 20% lot coverage restriction based on the existing “structure” definition versus on a more expansive definition. Babaki responded that more research was needed to answer the question.

Art Juror Janet McVeigh was in the audience and she stated that about three projects a year get sent back for rework based on the current definition of lot coverage. She went on to say that if the definition of “structure” were expanded to include pools, ponds and tennis courts, a few more projects would fall afoul of the 20% lot coverage restriction. A lot more if you added driveways, but that driveways needed to be carefully dealt with since there are fire department regulations as well as flag lots with long driveways, and it wouldn’t be fair to effectively penalize flag lots under a one size fits all regulation. She also stated that a more expansive definition of “structure” still would not address the “big house on a small pad” concern since it doesn’t take into account buildable land.

McVeigh gave an example of a submittal that was currently being seen by the Art Jury. It currently has a 9-11% lot coverage under the existing rules, but would probably go to 25% – 30% under the more expansive rules being discussed.

Director Sharon Ruhnau stated that there have recently been some questionable projects presented to the Art Jury, and asked Babaki if we changed the rules mid way on these projects, would they have to use the new rules. Babaki stated that she would look to the Board for guidance on that question.

Director Bill Strong sniped at the Art Jury stating that they could have addressed this issue 1 1/2 years ago but the Art Jury did not want to change the process. McVeigh countered that “wasn’t true” and that the Art Jury has wanted to have tennis courts and pools added to the definition of lot coverage for a long time.

Strong opined that if driveways were included in the 20% number, they should count at 50% of their square footage and that grasscrete should get a 100% exemption.

Building commissioner Babaki stated that we should have a workshop on this issue and Strong said there was no time for a workshop and this issue needed to be addressed immediately.

Dunn noted that the eight page staff report didn’t actually make a recommendation, and asked Babaki what the staff recommendation was. The gist of the reply is that staff wanted the Board to make a decision.

Director Rick Sapp then directly asked present Art Juror Janet McVeigh if the Art Jury was comfortable with Option C from the report (include tennis courts, other sports courts, pools, spas, and water features). Speaking on behalf of the Art Jury, McVeigh said yes. Ruhnau concurred saying that was a great choice.

McVeigh reiterated that driveways are more complicated and need a carefully worded rule with provisions for flag lots, grasscrete and other site specific issues.

Director Mike Gallagher wanted to see what impact this would have on a small lot, like 2 acres in size.

Sapp asked staff to draft a resolution for the January 9th meeting based on Option C of the report and directed staff to tell new applicants about the new upcoming rule.

Director Laurel Lemarie then asked about ground mount solar systems, should they be included? No one took her up on the question, and it was left hanging.

McVeigh had the last word in this discussion warning that “Option C” still would not address the most common over development issue of a large lot that had a small building pad.

My Thoughts

First, I gotta give kudos to the Association for even having this discussion in such an open forum. Maybe too much dirty laundry was aired, but I don’t think so. In the end, these kinds of discussions result in better policy.

On that note, why is this such a screaming emergency that you can’t even have an internal workshop between interested Art Jurors, staff and Board members?

In the meeting, Director Dunn kept asking for very simple analysis that hasn’t been done.

One hopes a process backed by thoughtful analysis is put in place for the next round as the remaining issues appear to be very complex indeed.