By Jill Draper
Westside resident Lauren Thompson became alarmed several years ago when a builder asked to see her basement, explaining he needed to find out if damage might be caused by constructing a wall only three or four feet away. Thompson’s next-door neighbor had sold a portion of the adjacent lot and the new owner wanted to squeeze a house onto a 25-foot-wide piece of land.
Thompson and her husband, an attorney, won a zoning appeal and lawsuit which stopped the construction, arguing the lot did not conform to a minimum required width of 30 feet. That’s when the Kansas City Planning and Development Department proposed changes to the zoning code that have been debated ever since, she said.
Kansas City has more than 22,000 non-conforming lots like the one next to Thompson’s house. Most are vacant or serving as side yards, and most are situated between the Missouri River and 85th Street. Many could be the site of new homes if the City Council changes the zoning code.
“We actually have so many of these lots, we don’t know the number,” said Joe Rexwinkle, a division manager at the KCMO Planning Department. The city wants to stimulate investment by allowing houses to be built on these non-conforming lots if they’re compatible with nearby existing homes, he said. Compatibility would be based on average height, size and setbacks.
At a meeting of the KC Neighborhood Advisory Council on Jan. 27, Rexwinkle talked about the latest ordinance language proposed for these types of lots as well as for minor subdivisions, including changes that would allow developments of up to 20 lots to be approved as minor rather than major subdivisions.
Rexwinkle said he had “seen at least a dozen projects walk away” because mid-sized builders did not want to go through the time and expense of the major subdivision process. These walkaways occurred in areas that include south of Waldo and there’s also been interest east of Holmes and in parts of Martin City, he added.
Rexwinkle ended the meeting by framing the proposed zoning changes as “a starting point for discussion.” But controversy over the changes has been ongoing. The city has been vague and muddied up the issue, Thompson said. “It’s part of the tactic so that people get lost.”
At the Jan. 27 meeting participants wondered if the changes would give builders too much leeway. “Are neighborhoods losing control of non-conforming lots?” asked Carol Winterowd, who heads the Center Planning and Development Council. Tiffany Moore, an officer with the Neighborhood Advisory Council, complained that the Planning Department was not collaborating enough with residents to let them help define the problem.
Thompson, whose lawsuit prompted the changes, was not at the meeting but said there’s no guarantee that new houses on non-conforming lots would be compatible with existing houses. One example is south of Waldo near Holmes and 92nd streets. Nearby resident Sherri Elliott said a developer purchased a parcel (long-vacant because of poor drainage) and built three tall rowhouses on 25-foot lots next to older ranch-style homes.
“The newer houses are completely out of character,” Elliott said. “The Planning Department went around six or seven years ago and got the neighborhoods involved to make all these area plans, and then just basically threw the whole thing out.”
Elliott realizes the city needs more housing and that many think the building codes are too restrictive. “I get that,” she said. “So, rezone areas. It’s much more straightforward.”
Abby Kinney, an urban planner at Gould Evans and co-host of a KC Strong Towns podcast, didn’t object when her neighbor in Columbus Park wanted to divide a piece of land into three smaller lots for three houses. But she felt bad that her neighbor’s action triggered a major subdivision process that cost an extra $50,000. She welcomes improvements to the zoning code that would have made this a minor subdivision change and she believes historic neighborhoods need more flexibility—as long as newly created lots are based on the surrounding pattern of development.
The proposed changes (to the KC Code of Ordinances, Chapter 88) are scheduled to be heard by the City Plan Commission on March 1, but is expected to be postponed once again, according to Rexwinkle.
“I’ve tried to read it and I can’t understand it,” said Elliott. “I think it should take a lot longer.”