Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Department tells builder to scrap plans for protruding garages

By: Tara Ramsey, staff writer//July 19, 2011//

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Department tells builder to scrap plans for protruding garages

By: Tara Ramsey, staff writer//July 19, 2011//

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Robert Burkett thought he’d build up to 73 single-family homes in Park South Station in south Charlotte.

Burkett, president of Concord-based J&B Development & Management, had planned to sell the homes at a higher price point, with the hopes of raising the values of neighboring homes.

But his project is in limbo, as an amendment to his site plan is being help up over concerns about the way two-car garages would be built at each home.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Department wants the garages to not jut out from the front of the houses. Garages that are recessed — meaning set back from the rest of the façade — would be OK, though.

Burkett could not be reached for comment for this story, but others in the homebuilding industry are protesting what they see as an attempt by the planning department to dictate how houses can be designed.

“That type of regulation is interfering with the process of buyer preference,” said Joe Padilla, executive public policy director for the Charlotte-based Real Estate & Building Industry Coalition. “Very rarely is a home plan done without significant evaluation of what the buyers want.”

To Padilla, the planning department has no right sticking its nose in the architecture business.

“Our position is simply that we believe the home-buying public should be able to choose the home designs, floor plans and elevations that appeal to them without the interference of government,” he said. “This is really architectural preference.”

The planning department says it is looking out for the entire Park South Station development.

Shad Spencer, a planner with the planning department, said recessed garages would keep the new homes consistent with the Park South Station project overall.

It’s just the latest example of the ongoing dispute between the homebuilding industry and the planning department over the latter’s control over how homes are designed.

Such debates have even captured the attention of state lawmakers.

State Sen. Daniel Clodfelter, who represents Mecklenburg County, this year tried to get the General Assembly to approve a bill that would make it illegal for municipalities in the state to dictate the appearance of single-family homes, except for in historic areas. His Senate Bill 731 won Senate approval but never made it out the House before the session ended in June.

Under state zoning law, municipalities, like the city of Charlotte, have the right to control the height and size of buildings and how they are used, but the law does not grant them authority over design.

As Clodfelter’s bill was being mulled by the General Assembly, the planning department altered proposed changes to its residential design standards text amendment that will be presented to the City Council in October. The text amendment no longer includes restrictions on blank exterior walls and garage design, two of the most contested parts of the proposed amendment. But the planning department is still dictating garage design.

The city hasn’t permanently ditched the idea of regulating blank exterior walls and garage design, according to one official.

“We will wait on the outcome of the Senate bill to decide about proceeding with these items,” city planner John Howard said in a June letter to the building industry.

Walter Fields, a land-use consultant and former city planner, said the planning department is overstepping its bounds in pushing for recessed garages.

“The planning staff doesn’t have any standards for this,” he said. “They’d like to have some standards for this, but this is the very reason the legislature was considering a bill to keep cities from telling people how their houses had to look.”

Mark Baldwin, executive director of the Home Builders Association of Charlotte, agreed and said the city cannot require recessed garages. It may take a lawsuit to stop the planning department from trying to control design, he said.

But Collin Brown, land-use attorney with K&L Gates in Charlotte, said the planning department is not necessarily out of line in its stance on the garages.

“The planning staff often asks for all sorts of things,” which a developer can agree or not agree to do, Brown said. “But the city cannot compel them to do it.”

If the planning department doesn’t recommend approval for a project, the developer can still try to win over the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Commission’s zoning committee. Even if the zoning committee rejects the request, the City Council gets the final say.

Negotiations are continuing between the city and Burkett’s company. If the city calls for recessed garages, it will require J&B’s homebuilder, Pulte Homes, to alter its floor plans, since none of them include recessed garages. J&B’s plans instead call for garages that are either flush with the rest of the façade or protrude from 5 to 8 feet.

Padilla said to redesign a floor plan for a recessed garage requires the whole side of the house be pushed back.

“You lose the rear yard, and homebuyers value a rear yard much more than front yard and recessed garages,” he said.

Redesigning floor plans is complicated and time-consuming, he added.

Laura Harmon, spokeswoman for the planning department, said the department is concerned about the design of homes, particularly what is being proposed from some garages.

“We would like to look at some restrictions,” she said. “We’ve seen things that are pretty extreme.”

But planning commission Chairman Stephen Rosenburgh has a different view, saying varying garage designs help avoid neighborhoods with cookie-cutter appearances.

“Inconsistency is a good term,” he said. “It’s more interesting that way.”

Tara Ramsey can be reached at [email protected].

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