Sustainability 2019: Zoned Out – Communities Loosen Grip on Land Use

No matter the financial resources, motivation or incentive to develop affordable housing, any project may run up against the concrete wall of local zoning codes. Zoning administrators are acutely aware of the ways in which zoning can stifle or promote housing development, and they are working on that piece of the puzzle.

Zoning codes regulate things such as the size and type of development on a property and the use of the land. They are the reason you can’t build a gas station in a residential neighborhood or a single-family home in the heart of Sturgeon’s Bay’s 3rd Avenue. But they are also the reason why apartment proposals dissipate and tiny homes are outlawed, and they play a role in galvanizing neighborhood opposition to a proposed housing development.

There is a web of zoning administration across the county. Villages such as Ephraim, Sister Bay and Egg Harbor, as well as the City of Sturgeon Bay administer their own zoning. The county has jurisdiction over the zoning in most of the remaining unincorporated townships although a few towns (primarily in Southern Door) have exemptions from the county’s zoning code.

There are a few zoning standards that cut across jurisdictions and can aid in developing affordable housing if done properly.

“About 15 years ago – this is before the housing bubble burst – we had a similar situation where affordable housing was an issue,” said Marty Olejniczak, community development director for the City of Sturgeon Bay. “One of the things that was looked at was impediments in the zoning codes.”

One of those impediments was the minimum size of a lot. Allowing smaller lots means a developer can slice a large lot into smaller pieces, fitting in more homes than were allowed before. Sturgeon Bay lowered the required lot size in some of its zoning districts, although Olejniczak said no changes were made in the Residential-1 (R-1) district immediately outside of the downtown commercial district, where most of the city’s single-family homes are.

Mariah Goode, head of the Door County Planning Department, said the county also looked at lot size about seven years ago and created “conservation subdivisions.” Basically, developers can subdivide larger lots into smaller pieces as long as they leave a portion for open space.

“What I think it does is it allows for the creation of smaller lots, which is going to make things cheaper in the long run for whoever the parcel might be created for,” Goode said.

After shrinking lot sizes, the square footage of the unit itself was another piece of low-hanging fruit for change. Sturgeon Bay reduced the minimum floor size to 800 square feet, but again, not in the R-1 district, where it is still 1,400 square feet.

The R-1 restrictions limit the ability of developers to build smaller homes – which would likely be more affordable – in the primary residential district. Olejniczak said Habitat for Humanity avoids constructing new homes in the R-1 district because its dwellings are considered too small.

“When people try to donate R-1 lots, they just put them back on the market,” he said.

At the county level, Goode said she is also exploring the effect of minimum square footage, set at 750 square feet for a two-bedroom home and 1,000 square feet for a three-bedroom home.

“It does present a stumbling block if someone has a design that is very small,” Goode said, transitioning the conversation inevitably to “tiny homes,” which usually consist of fewer than 400 square feet of space. “This is the reason tiny homes can’t go on a lot all by themselves. Most of them are adorable, but we can’t allow [just] adorable small things – we have to allow small things that are also dumpy.”

For Egg Harbor Village Administrator Ryan Heise, clarity in the zoning code is key.

“It gets so unclear when you’re trying to have a conversation with someone who is making an investment,” Heise said. “There are no surprises in a developer’s project. If you go through that conditional use process, you don’t know what you’re going to get. Those transactional costs have a big effect.”

Explicitly defining things like tiny homes, accessory units and workforce housing in the zoning code can give developers clarity before they pitch a project to a local plan commission.

“It helps if you get the definition without having to go through a conditional use process or permit,” Heise said.

That conditional use process is another stumbling block for many developments. It opens up the nuances of a proposed project to the whims of the local zoning administration and the litany of comments that public scrutiny brings.

Sarah Bonovich, the developer behind the 64-unit Tall Pines Estates development in Sturgeon Bay, said the process was smooth but strangely specific.

“There were some hurdles that we had to navigate that we haven’t had in other cities – like the finishes and the exterior had to be approved,” Bonovich said, adding that Olejniczak and others were exceptionally helpful in that navigation. “They needed to approve the stone we selected.”

Although this depth of process for one of the largest housing developments in years has merit, raising the threshold of what types of projects trigger a public hearing and strict scrutiny from local officials could grease the wheels of housing development, albeit at the cost of some local control.

There are still ways in which zoning codes can be modified to encourage housing development. Olejniczak would like to see many of the changes the city made a decade ago applied to the R-1 district. Goode is exploring the possibility of providing developments targeted at workforce or affordability, or those that use environmentally sustainable infrastructure, more leeway on things such as lot size and density.

The county is assisting local governments in identifying municipally owned properties that may be suitable for housing development. The first question to ask is, what’s the zoning?