April 11, 2007
"Zoning" in the Heights update

Apparently, my post about the Chron article that was subheaded Houston panel urges zoning on development in neighborhoods got mailed around a bit, and as a result I wound up speaking to Planning Commission committee member Mark Sterling, who helped me understand what this is really all about. Here's the gist of it:

1. That subhead was not accurate, and apparently the Chron reporter was not happy about it. Reporters don't write headlines, so these things do happen. Apparently, the Chron ran a corrected version on Tuesday that did not include the Z word in it.

2. What the committee is doing now is based on the lot size and setback ordinance that was proposed in February. Basically, this would impose similar requirements for the height and width of single-family dwellings all structures. In this case, for blocks that qualify for the protection, maximum height and width are set to be at the 70th percentile for the block.

3. To qualify, a block must be at least 60 percent single family dwellings, and must be inside the Loop. This is to weed out blocks that are mostly commercial, though as noted in the prior point, a commercial structure on a 60% SFD block would be subject to the same restrictions. They considered limiting it to specific neighborhoods, but rejected that for the less complicated approach. There is still discussion over whether the ordinance should apply everywhere inside the Loop, or if it should be limited to specific neighborhoods.

4. Both new construction and additions to existing dwellings are covered.

5. Obviously, this method will have some holes in it. If you happen to be a bungalow owner on a block that is mostly three-story townhouses, you'll be out of luck. No ordinance can cover everything, but this one should cover most places that will benefit from it.

6. A key to this will be making sure that the relevant information is available to all interested parties, so that builders can know what their limits are before they pour a slab or build some piers. The lot size/setback ordinance would put the onus of those calculations on the Planning Department. I asked Sterling about this for the height/width requirements, and at this time it is still an open question. How much it would cost to provide the necessary information, and how that cost might be funded if need be, are also still big open questions.

7. Pretty much everything is still a work in progress, and the final product may look different from what is now on the table. Sterling sent me this presentation of the current proposal (PDF) if you want to get a feel for the thought process.

There should be a Chron story in the This Week section for the Heights tomorrow. I'll link it when I see it.

UPDATE: I have made some corrections to the above based on subsequent feedback from Mark Sterling.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on April 11, 2007 to Elsewhere in Houston

Oh Man - I hope the height and width part will make it into the final proposal. This would be of great benefit to blocks in the Heights that are mostly bungalows. Might keep so many McMansions from being built.

Posted by: becky on April 11, 2007 2:51 PM

Maybe someone who has looked into this more thoroughly can answer this question (that affects me personally). Regarding the maximum height requirement: If most of the houses on my block (all but one) are one-story bugalows, will this requirement prevent me from adding a second story to my house as my family grows?

Posted by: kh on April 12, 2007 10:08 AM

In response to kh: At one point the subcommittee was considering regulating structure "footprint", but realized that would preclude the type of renovation you are planning. The idea of coupling side setbacks with "height plane" was intended to NOT constrain a common mode of "growing family" expansion, namely a couple of additional bedrooms at the back of the house. On my block, the folks across the street DOUBLED their square footage by going "back & up", and you simply can't see it from the street. Many of the details of the proposed ordinances have been tested against THAT house. Also, the side setback proposal does not impact what happens toward the back of the lot. It sounds like you are exactly the kind of homeowners these ordinances are designed for. If you'd like to give me a call, I'm in the book. Your comments could help fine-tune the recommendations...

Posted by: Mark on April 12, 2007 6:38 PM