Fort Worth approves TCU-area stealth dorm overlay

By Scott Nishimura

Fort Worth City Council members on Tuesday approved a new zoning overlay meant to stop the growth of “stealth dorms” – large single-family homes rented by the room to TCU students – in several neighborhoods around the university.

The overlay pares to three from five the number of unrelated people who can live in A one-family zoning. Owners of rental properties that have four or five unrelated residents get those uses grandfathered in perpetuity, if they register in a new city rental registry by March 31, 2015.

The council lifted a moratorium on new single-family permits that it implemented in the district earlier this fall while it debated the overlay.

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The overlay and rental registry, negotiated by a city-appointed mediation committee of neighborhood, investor, and TCU representatives, didn’t address tenant behavior, the contentious issue that pushed the debate about an overlay before the council. The committee was unable to reach consensus, and the city staff said the issue would be better addressed in a chronic nuisance ordinance in the future.

Council members on Tuesday debated whether a chronic nuisance ordinance would be the best way to go, with some noting the city doesn’t have enough resources to address code issues today.

Mayor Betsy Price said she first wanted to see a TCU-led spinoff committee from the mediation group address options for the off-campus behavior of students. The committee, made up of neighborhood, student, university and investor representatives, will begin meeting in January.

“We need to give TCU, students, owners, and developers a chance to work through those issues on their own,” Price said.

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Neitghborhoods have complained of the growth of stealth dorms for several years, citing noise, litter, alcohol, and parking problems, and unintended high-density uses in single-family zoning. They also say the often-similiarly designed new buildings have destroyed the character of old neighborhoods.

“We’ve stopped the bleeding with these proposals, but we haven’t cured the problem that existed, because it’s now being grandfathered,” Councilman Jungus Jordan said Tuesday during the afternoon pre-council meeting.

Jordan asked the city staff whether there was a need for a nuisance ordinance beyond what the city already has on the books. City Attorney Sarah Fullenwider, in response, said the city has some ordinances in place, but likely not enough to address the problems raised in the TCU area. The staff has said a nuisance ordinance should be considered citywide.

“I would like to see a timetable of when we’re going to address that,” Jordan said.

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Councilman Sal Espino questioned whether a nuisance ordinance would pile more demands on the stretched city staff and financial resources.

“We already have code issues, we already have nuisances…I want to make sure we have enough resources to deal with the nuisances we already have,” Espino said. “We still don’t have enough resources there.”

Martha Jones, vice president of the Bluebonnet Hills Neighborhood Association, asked council members to pass the overlay and rental registration and move on to debating a citywide nuisance ordinance.

“We as homeowners have compromised in a situation that we should never have had to deal with,” she said.

Councilman W.B. “Zim” Zimmerman said “we don’t miss the message that we’ve only solved one part of the problem.”

Council members Danny Scarth, Sal Espino, and Dennis Shingleton asked the staff about a contention raised by investors – that the grandfathering, which landlords would surrender if they discontinued the non-conforming use for more than two consecutive years, would force landlords to discriminate against families to preserve their grandfathered use.

City Attorney Sarah Fullenwider said her office doesn’t believe the ordinance change creates a fair housing issue. Landlords already were faced with the same choice, she said.

“We are not finding any cases to support that this might be a fair housing issue,” she said. Investors on the mediation committee agreed to support the overlay on the condition that existing properties be grandfathered in perpetuity. They argued they made their investments under the current rules, and that no or restrictive grandfathering would represent a potentially unconstitutional taking of property.

The council, in four 8-0 votes, with Council member Gyna Bivens absent, approved the overlay, an accompanying map, the rental registration, and the lifitng of the single-family permit moratorium. Council member Ann Zadeh, whose South Side district includes much of the overlay map, made the motions and Zimmernan, whose West Side district also includes part of the overlay, seconded them.

The overlay area includes the Berkeley Place, Park Hill, University Place, Paschal Heights, University West, Colonial Hills, Tanglewood, Westcliff and Westcliff West, Bluebonnet Hills, and Bluebonnet Place neighborhoods.