We are COWncerned

May 24, 2010

We are a COWmunity that values old structures that add to the rural appearance of our Town. Many of these structures are nonconforming for a variety of reasons including in terms of setback. Questions arise when an owner wants to remodel one of these structures. As became obvious at a recent Planning Commission hearing, the Municipal Code has not been applied uniformly.

The basic question raised by that hearing is whether an attached garage is a separate use. In that case, the applicants sought approval of their plans to demolish an existing two story residence with a nonconforming front setback. The house has an attached garage which was not in the setback. The application was to construct a new two story residence with an attached garage to be located in a portion of the nonconforming front setback (within the existing homes footprint). The Municipal Code, section 153.301(A,) allows the complete rebuilding of structures existing as of October 1, 1998, subject to certain height limitations as long as the footprint remains the same. Staff denied the application based on its interpretation that a garage, even when attached, is a separate use and is subject to the change in use limitations of the Code.

Staff and the Town Attorney went so far as to say that use of your attached garage for any purpose other than the shelter of motor vehicles is an unauthorized use!!!!!! Gee – , so using your garage as a workshop, laundry, craft or play room or even storage is illegal!!!!!! Many COWs use garages as offices, playrooms, art studios, laundry areas, storage areas instead for or only for vehicles. Are they all in violation of the Code?

Nowhere in the Code does it tell you how to use the rooms of your house nor should it. Nowhere is one building characterized as having multiple permitted uses nor should it. If you have a house with no attached garage and you want to add one within the existing nonconforming footprint, why would that be a problem? Or if you want to convert an attached garage which is in a nonconforming setback, why is that a problem? If there is an aesthetic concern about garages in the front of homes, address that specifically.

One of the biggest complaints against Hope Sullivan was inconsistency. We had hoped when she left that there would be consistent application of the rules. Vice-chair Hobson and Commissioner Voelke referenced an analogous situation that had come before them where the applicant wanted to change the garage of an accessory building into a pool room (see our stories about this here and here). The Commission denied the appeal but the Town Council overrode the appeal and approved the applicant’s project. In checking that one out, we found the Council had asked staff to propose a clarifying ordinance on this subject which never happened.

The Commission did the right thing this time and approved the project. But now, they adopted a formal resolution to initiate an amendment to the Code “as it relates to the requirements for the changes in use of a nonconforming structure.” Staff really needs to come back with proposed ordinance amendments that address all of the related issues.

Staff should spell out how they want to treat legal nonconforming structures and why. This is not an urban environment where the goal should be elimination. Is there is any reason to preclude a change of use in a nonconforming structure, if the new use would be allowed in a conforming structure and would not intensify the use? Is an attached garage a separate use or merely a part of the residence? May you use your attached garage for any residential purpose you see fit as long as you meet the parking requirements? Of course, this does not apply to those garages where a floor area credit was given specifically for a garage. However, even in this case, as long as cars can park in it, should the Town have a say about whether you use it for something else like storage or hobbies? Does a residence ever have more than one use from a Code perspective? If you use a home office, is that a separate use? What if you have a home gym, is that a separate use? If you use your guesthouse as your studio, gym or home office, is that a change in use? These issues all need a full airing and should not be addressed in an ad hoc manner.

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