May 14, 2006
Lot sizes in the Heights

Here's a story from earlier this week that I didn't have a chance to get to: Residents of the Sunset Heights expressed their displeasure to Mayor White over the process to request minimum lot sizes.

[I]t wasn't until three concrete slabs, foundations for upscale two-story homes, sprouted on the lot that Tony West suspected the quality of life in his Sunset Heights neighborhood might be under assault.

Within weeks, West and others petitioned the city to protect 34 blocks of the near-downtown residential area from high-density construction under an ordinance giving residents a say in how densely their neighborhoods may be developed. No residence, they argued, should be built on a lot smaller than 6,000 square feet, the neighborhood standard.

City planning commissioners rejected the request 7-6 in January, after other neighborhood residents expressed opposition and the Greater Houston Builders Association protested the size of the proposed protected area.


Activists argue the ordinance should be strengthened to regulate the size of houses that can be built in established neighborhoods. They say that a means should be created to appeal adverse planning commission decisions.

Building interests think the ordinance should clearly define what constitutes sufficient neighborhood support for a petition.

Planning commissioners have received approximately 200 petitions to establish minimum lot sizes since the ordinance was adopted in 2001. As of last month, 138 had been approved; only six, including Sunset Heights, had been rejected.

Under the city law, petitioners must establish that their effort has "substantial support" among neighborhood residents and that at least 75 percent of lots in their neighborhood meet the proposed size standard.

If petitioners meet those and other requirements and draw no opposition, their request can be passed directly to City Council for action.

In contested cases, planning commissioners intervene. If they approve the petition, it moves on to the council. If they reject it, the decision cannot be appealed.

Most of the neighborhoods petitioning for minimum lot sizes for protection under the ordinance have been in the Heights area, said Mark Sterling, Houston Heights Association land use chairman. Such older near-downtown neighborhoods, with their single-family dwellings and mature trees, increasingly have come under redevelopment pressure.

There's more coverage of this in the This Week section. The reason why this particular application was rejected was apparently because the area covered by the petition was unusually large.

Tory doesn't quite understand what the fuss is about.

Many neighborhoods would kill for this kind of nice, context-sensitive, upscale development. I think they have much more character than the usual Houston townhome developments. Splitting the lots also keeps housing affordable, which keeps the neighborhood's cool, funky character. If they lot sizes get locked big, they'll have to get covered with expensive McMansions, the whole neighborhood will gentrify, and people will be even more unhappy.

If the Sunset Heights, which is north and west of where I live, is anything like the Houston Heights, then having smaller lots is by no means a guard against out-of-character McMansions. I could take you by quite a few of them just driving to and from Olivia's day care. The main difference is that the smaller-lot houses are much more likely to squeeze close to the boundary lines. And while the houses in the picture Tory provides certainly look nice enough, if the neighborhood doesn't have some tool available to it to put a check on the not-so-nice stuff, then they're basically at the mercy of whatever Perry Homes or whoever wants to do. That's not a comforting thought.

And that's the crux of the complaint here. The Sunset Heights folks are saying they followed the rules and got turned down, and now they feel like they have no recourse. They could pursue deed restrictions, but that has to be done on a block-by-block basis, which is time and labor intensive. Meanwhile, the guidelines for making a successful application for minimum lot sizes are unclear, there's no appeals process for when you lose, and more lots are being divided and built on while they fight to be heard. I can certainly see why they're not happy.

Finally, the question, also raised by Tory, of whether or not imposing a minimum lot size may cause the residents to hamper their future resale value is not clear to me. What a neighborhood like this has going for it beyond its proximity to downtown is its heritage. There are people who pay a premium for that. Maybe that balances out the ability to sell to a developed looking to turn your lot into two new houses, maybe it doesn't, but maintaining the distinctiveness of a place like the Sunset Heights definitely has its own worth. I haven't heard anyone suggest that the Woodland Heights is in any peril by having deed and lot size restrictions. Why should the Sunset Heights be?

Posted by Charles Kuffner on May 14, 2006 to Elsewhere in Houston | TrackBack

I sympathize with the residents, but minimum lot-size restrictions strike me as a rather blunt instrument to deal with their concerns. Seems to me that high-density housing near downtown would generally be a good thing, since the only alternative for a growing city is more sprawl.

Posted by: Mathwiz on May 14, 2006 8:43 PM

Sure, but bear in mind they're asking for 6000 square foot lots, not the 3000 sf that developers want. That's a 60x100 lot, which is not exactly sprawlworthy.

FWIW, the minimum lot size in the Woodland Heights is 5000 square feet.

Posted by: Charles Kuffner on May 14, 2006 8:47 PM