Leon Peters was hoping to get a variance approval that would allow him to subdivide his property on Pearl Street in order to build a house that would add “workforce housing” to the neighborhood. Workforce housing is a term for homes that are affordable to the average worker. The City has long identified the lack of workforce house.
While the council could not approve Mr. Peters’ variance request, due to concerns of broader negative precedents it could set throughout the entire city, the council vowed to find a way forward to allow the new house to be built.
“I think you need to look at all the consequences and unintended consequences of this,” cautioned City Manager David Nunn. “If you do it once, then someone has a fairly decent argument that you can do it again. These are hard decisions and they are not that easy to understand. A variance is a way to get around what the rules are, at least that’s what a lot of people think, but zoning is about the rules and not about the fine man that is asking for it,” said Nunn, who praised Peters for his work in the community.
A local Morgan County Middle School teacher is already preapproved to purchase the home proposed by Peters once it is built. Peters had requested a reduction in lot size requirements on two tracts of land. According to City staff, “The Applicant requests a variance to reduce the minimum lot area of Tract A from 0.25 acres to 0.21 acres, a variance of 0.04 acres; and a variance to reduce the minimum lot area of Tract B from 0.25 acres to 0.17 acres, a variance of 0.08 acres.”
“I understand what the rules and regulations are,” said Peters to the council. “But it s our community and its interest to try to provide a workforce home, if we can…There are several lots on that street that are smaller than what we are trying to be. We are not trying to change the precedent of what is already over there.”
Peters also noted the surrounding community is in favor of the house being built.
The council was in agreement that workforce housing is a vital need in the community that is severely lacking, but was unsure of the best way to secure it in this case.
“I love you like a brother,” said Councilman Joe DiLetto. “I had heartburn about this thing right here. I would support this based on the pure need you fulfill in the area alone.”
“Sometimes it’s tough,” said Madison Mayor Fred Perriman. “I thought about this change and I thought about the needs in our community. We just don’t have adequate housing to supply the needs of our people.”
City Planner Monica Callahan suggested a solution that would be narrower in scope than approving a variance request that could yield unintended consequences with other applicants down the road.
Callahan suggested updating the Urban Renewal Policy and designating the area as a specific site to cultivate more workforce housing.
“If the interest in workforce housing is what wets your whistle, you could set a workforce housing goal that serves a bigger public purpose,” said Callahan. “I would suggest looking into that. It would be less trouble citywide.”
According to Callahan, if the city went that route, they could set up alternate standards for the designated area that would bypass the current lot size requirements.
“It would benefit the entire area,” said Councilwoman Chris Hodges.
The council discussed the possibility of both approving the variance and exploring rezoning the entire area in order to accommodate workforce housing opportunities, but in the end, the variance was denied in a 3-to-1 vote.
“Mr. Peters, is in my opinion, is one of the good guys. He is a real asset to the Canaan Neighborhood and to Morgan County as a whole,” said Councilman Eric Joyce. “But I’m faced with a staff report that leaves Mr. Peters application short on every one of the standards necessary…this just seems like a slippery slope. I realize there is a lot of precedent over there for smaller lots, but I don’t think we need to be breaking our rules to make even more of them.”
The council promised to revisit the issue at the next regular meeting to vote on creating a special zone that would allow Mr. Peters to move forward with building the new house.