Devil in the details

Council spars over land-use code

Mayor Doug Lyon worries that a restrictive building code is keeping families from moving into the city’s historic neighborhoods, making them opt instead for newer subdivisions on the edge of town.

Jarrod Nixon, former president of the Durango Area Association of Realtors, agrees that homes built 100 years ago might be “functionally obsolete.” Homes in the historic neighborhood are typically 1½ stories high, usually requiring dormers in the roof to provide for extra living space upstairs.

But if standards become too loose, architects worry that historic neighborhoods will lose their character as the classic pitched roofs are replaced with rectangular, box-like structures, especially with a maximum wall plate height of 18 feet, making it convenient for slab-on-truss construction or a prefabricated-style of building.

The war over 6 inches was waged at a City Council study session Tuesday as Lyon argued for allowance of 18-foot high wall plate against a recommendation of 17½ feet from local architects. The current standard height is 16 feet for the wall plate, or the load-bearing frame of the building. The height does not include the roof because the roof is pitched over the frame.

Lyon settled on the 17½-foot height after a suggestion from Councilor Dick White that city staff members could “routinely” accept building heights of 17½ feet, but exceptions or variances could still be made depending on the circumstances.

Councilors on Tuesday hashed out the last of their recommendations on a new land-use development code.

The new code, which will be longer than 400 pages, will go through the adoption process beginning in February with a formal presentation at a City Council meeting while the last vote by the council is scheduled for April.

Many residents worry about the effect of unintended consequences of the proposed regulations, which would formally allow for accessory dwellings, or alley cottages built behind larger homes.

Michael Burke, for example, said the accessory dwellings will exacerbate the parking congestion in the neighborhoods close to downtown.

Whether accessory dwellings will proliferate is subject to debate.

City staff members said code requirements will discourage the quick conversion of garages into rental cottages.

Lyon thought the high costs of construction and real estate would discourage people from building accessory dwellings. Residents would have to want to provide living space for a loved one to build an accessory dwelling, Lyon said.

Councilor Christina Rinderle also thought people should have more options for their property. Someone paying rent on an accessory dwelling could help homeowners make their mortgages.

As a reassurance, Todd Messenger, the consultant who is preparing the code, said he is designing it to be easily amendable, so the city could always change the language from “not allow” to “allow” in the future.

jhaug@durangoherald.com