The purpose of zoning is to control the use and the intensity of use of land. Zoning dictates the overall size of buildings and their relationship to their site and surrounding properties. It determines allowable height, lot occupancy, setback, and roof structures, as well as the number of dwelling units and off-street parking spaces. Zoning regulations were in place long before historic preservation laws were adopted, and there are contradictions between them. Indeed, they operate as parallel systems of law with different decision makers. Where zoning confers a clear right, HPRB generally respects that underlying right in reviewing a proposed design. This means that HPRB’s design review process is unlikely to preserve original features of the rear of a property, or its scale and massing, if the owner is proposing a large addition that meets zoning requirements.
The conflict between zoning and historic preservation in row house neighborhoods such as Mount Pleasant has recently been highlighted by the controversy surrounding “pop-ups” and “pop-backs,” additions of full floors visible from the street and large additions to the rear of houses. As of June 26, 2015, owners of houses zoned R-4 (including most of our historic district) may not develop more than two units “as a matter of right.” This represents a major change from the regulations in force since 1958 which allowed of-right conversions of houses to apartment houses of 3 or more units as long as there was 900 square feet of lot size per unit. Under the new regulations, conversions to more than two units may be approved by the Board of Zoning Adjustment (BZA) if additional conditions are met for “special exception” relief, but the new rules also allow BZA to waive or modify some of these new conditions. Conversions outside the new limitations may only be approved as variances. (See Here for more Information)
While the recent amendments should reduce some of the development pressure on our historic district, they are significantly less than what HMP sought – which was to limit of-right conversions to two units and require that conversions beyond that be subject to approval as variances. BZA routinely approves “special exceptions,” and many of the additional conditions imposed were designed to provide design review for pop-ups in non-historic districts. Design review for historic districts such as Mount Pleasant protects the fronts of houses from such towering additions. However, Mount Pleasant has a significant number of lots measuring 2700 square feet or more that are still subject to conversion to 3 or more units. It remains to be seen whether the addition of a requirement that the fourth and every even-numbered unit thereafter is subject to “inclusionary zoning” (that is, reserved for residents at a specific income level) will be effective to curtail the desire of developers to build the maximum number of units allowed by lot size. HMP will be following the implementation of these new rules to see whether additional changes are needed to protect the character of our historic district.
The new rules are complicated and resulted from a voluminous case before the HMP and other Mount Pleasant residents testified before the Zoning Commission and presented petitions with 555 signatures in favor of limiting conversions to two units.
Final Order, ZC14-11PopUpsEap062615
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