PRESIDENT’S COURT – THE MAIN ARTICLE — An Example of How Our Government Makes Flawed Development Decisions

June 16, 2013 § Leave a comment


1. The Development

The President’s Court, an upscale development, is located at the corner of Van Buren Street and Herndon Pkwy. As one drives along Van Buren Street across from the Haley Smith Park, one cannot miss its distinctive view. Close spacing between homes seems odd. The fence around the development, although a bit less conspicuous, seems out-of-place. And, the view of the back of the homes along Van Buren is not very inviting either. Most people just want to drive by without taking a second look, except that when they reach its entrance, they get a quick peek at the relatively upscale nature of the neighborhood. It was supposed to be a “gateway” into the town. At least, that is what the town staff said back in 1996.

Once inside the development, people are surprised by the narrowness of its only street (Senate Court). One wonders whether garbage trucks, fire engines and delivery trucks can navigate the street ease. Yellow curbs on both side of the street are a bit disconcerting also. Where do I park, a new visitor wonders? Yes, there are 11 visitor spaces, but they are inconveniently located at the two ends of the street. The spaces are not sufficient to serve the needs of 27 single-family residential units. The guests often have to park in the adjoining neighborhoods. The shortage has caused considerable friction among the residents.

2. The Re-Zoning Request

In 1996, the property consisted of three adjoining parcels in an R-10 zoning district. It would have been very inefficient to develop them independently. The development proposal consisted of two main parts:

  • Consolidate the parcels into one 6.26 acre lot, and
  • Rezone the combined lot from R-10 to RGC (residential – garden court) zoning

Just the consolidation of the parcel itself would have increased the value of the land significantly, but the combination of the consolidation and rezoning would cause another big jump in value. The latter would allow the developer to build many more homes than under the R-10 zoning.[1]

The developer initially submitted a proposal to build 35 single-family homes under the RGC zoning in the late 1980s. The application was denied, because “…there was considerable concern that if the subject property were to be rezoned for Garden Court, then the 10 acres across the street could very well be rezoned to a Garden Court or townhouse development, which would not have been appropriate.” The density of development in the 16.2-acre area, in Town staff’s view, would have been incompatible with the surrounding R-10 neighborhoods.

By 1996, however, the circumstances had changed. The 10-acre lot across the street was being developed into a Town park. Due to the reduction in the size of the developable area, the concerns about excessive density were not as prominent as in the late 80s. They were there nonetheless. The developer, after an exploratory inquiry, resubmitted its proposal in 1996. The staff must have encouraged him to do so, because there would have been no point in submitting an already rejected application.

3. Regulatory Mandates

The intent of the RGC district was “…to allow single-family residential development at urban densities, and, at the same time, permitting the highest degree of flexibility in design…” (emphasis added). The RGC zoning allowed a developer to (1) locate dwelling units as close as 4’ from each other, (2) begin construction of the units at the lot line, and (3) cover the entire lot with the foot print of a home. Seemingly, a builder could build a large number of homes very close to each other, except that he had to comply with several constraining requirements, including the following:

  • do not exceed 6 homes per gross acre of land.
  • provide at least 700 sq. ft. per dwelling unit for developed, active recreation areas.[2]
  • protect existing trees, and set-aside land for management of storm-water and construction of streets (within the development), and
  • dedicate land for public street improvements.

The record suggests that about 2.4 acres were set aside to meet the regulatory mandates and demands of the town. Of the 6.26 acres, only 3.8 acres were used to construct homes. Initially, the developer proposed to build 35 residential units. It implies the size of an average lot, including the rear-yard set back, would have been about 3,330 sq. ft. It would increase to 4,030 sq. ft., if the Town were to waive the requirement to provide a dedicated, active recreation area.

Even the larger lot would have run afoul of another mandate of the zoning regulation – Neighborhood Preservation, which imposes two conditions that require compatibility with adjacent neighborhoods:

  • Lot Sizes: Consolidation of parcels and redevelopment is not encouraged; neither is the re-subdivision of lots sizes smaller than the neighborhood average.
  • Character of Neighborhoods: Development in such areas should be compatible with the existing, adjacent residential neighborhoods to maintain the same or similar character.

The regulations do not set any numerical standards (or provide any guidance) for assessing the meaning of the terms “lot sizes smaller than the neighborhood average”, and “the same or similar character”. If the average lot size in the adjacent neighborhoods is 10,000 sq. ft., can the property be subdivided into lots of 5,000 sq. ft. to conform to the Neighborhood Preservation mandate? Similarly, what architectural standards or what measures of density, should be used to measure “same or similar character”? The staff was faced with developing a set of robust rules for making decisions.

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