Fort Worth citizens committee cuts draft of TCU zoning overlay

By Scott Nishimura

A citizens committee struggled Wednesday night to reach a draft version of a controversial, proposed TCU-area zoning ordinance that would limit the growth of so-called “stealth dorms,” arriving at agreement after the continuation of a protracted debate about grandfathering existing properties.

The city-appointed mediation committee voted 18-3 on a draft ordinance that would reduce the number of permissible, unrelated adults living in single-family homes in several neighborhoods around TCU to three from five.

It would allow grandfathering in perpetuity; require property owners to surrender that status if they discontinue the non-conforming use for more than two years; and set the grandfathered use at the effective date of the ordinance, likely Dec. 2, when it is tentatively scheduled to appear before the City Council. It would also make the City Council’s approval contingent on definitive guidelines for the structure of a rental registration system that property owners would have to sign up for.

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The committee, including representatives from neighborhoods, investor groups, and TCU, reached its agreement after a series of motions, votes, and backtracks.

The city’s zoning commission is scheduled to consider the proposed ordinance Nov. 12, and forward the case to the council for the December vote. Zoning Chairman Nick Genua and commissioners Will Northern and Gaye Reed attended Wednesday’s committee meeting.

Wary of the potential for a tenuous compromise, Fernando Costa, the Fort Worth assistant city manager who has chaired the committee’s three meetings, opened Wednesday’s by imploring the members to work hard toward an honest agreement.

“I’ve heard rumors that people will vote tonight and then work to undermine that at zoning,” he told the committee. “That would really erode what we’re trying to achieve.”

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Wednesday’s meeting focused on grandfathering and what language the ordinance will include concerning the timing and other criteria for setting a property’s grandfathered use. One question: what if a property historically has rented to five unrelated adults, but only has three on the ordinance’s effective date?

Much of the debate centered on investors’ intent to lease to more than three adults in those cases, and whether there would be room for discussion.

In the end, the ordinance, as contemplated, would match the language in the city’s code for other “legal non-conforming” uses, setting up the city staff as referee and allowing appeals of rejected uses to the city’s Board of Adjustment.

Neighborhood leaders and investors continued to spar with each other at times during Wednesday’s meeting, as they have at others.

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“The only mediation we’re seeing is coming from the neighborhoods,” Keith Ashcraft, president of the University Place Neighborhood Association, whose leadership has moved from recommending no grandfathering to agreeing to it, said. “All I have heard from investors is how do we set our intent.”

Chris Powers, an investor and one of the leaders of the group of investors and developers on the committee, responded by noting that the group members have largely agreed to the three-adult maximum.

“Well, you’re getting your grandfathering,” Ashcraft responded.

Powers noted the investors sought only what’s already in the city ordinance on grandfathered uses.

“We’re not sitting here trying to change the law,” he said. “We’ve come down to three from five. As investors and developers, that means we can’t go build anymore.”

The stealth dorm issue has been bubbling for several years around TCU, where growing enrollment has pushed students into surrounding neighborhoods in search of housing. The overlay is aimed at large single-family homes built new – or converted – and leased to as many as five TCU students by the room at rates as high as a reported $1,000 per month. The new homes typically may have five bedrooms and five baths and a kitchen, but no living space. Five unrelated adults is the maximum allowed in single family zoning in Fort Worth.

Neighbors have complained of noise, litter, parking problems, and a loss of neighborhood and historical flavor from the newly built homes, constructed by a small number of builders and often similar in appearance.

Investors – some retirees, others small business owners and local developers – argue tenant behavior is not a matter that should be dealt with under the zoning ordinances, and that it would be unfair and potentially illegal to cut the number of permissible adult residents without grandfathering. They also assert the proposed ordinance puts landlords in a position of discriminating against families in order to maintain grandfathered uses.

Neighborhood leaders have acknowledged conflicting emotions.

“I don’t see how it can be any other way than grandfathering,” Martha Jones, vice president of the Bluebonnet Hills Neighborhood Association, said during the meeting.

But she also worried some landlords may try to increase their numbers of unrelated adult tenants before the new ordinance takes effect, to set their grandfathered uses at the higher number.

“We don’t want to see a bunch of three-person homes that all of a sudden have four or five in them, just so they can get in under this zoning,” she said.

The draft ordinance agreed to Wednesday increased the window for discontinued or abandoned uses to 24 months from 12, the period after which a property the grandfathered status. That means, for example, a property that’s grandfathered at five unrelated adults would lose that status if the home is occupied by a family for more than two years.

Some of the investors asked whether it would be possible to set that window at infinity.

“That’s more generous in terms of legal non-conforming uses than we have anywhere else in the city,” Dana Burghdoff, the city’s deputy planning and development director, said.

Consensus was difficult to reach on all details.

Costa asked whether the committee members had a consensus on whether to try and specify investors’ intent in the ordinance, to provide more concrete grounds to go on if an investor who’s historically leased to five adults has a lesser number on the ordinance’s effective date. The committee members had no consensus, so no language was added to the draft ordinance.

Mike Coffey, representing the University West Neighborhood Association, asked the investors whether they would agree to tie grandfathering to “bad behavior by residents.” As an example, he asked whether it would be possible to revoke a grandfathered status after five citations.

Powers responded that could set landlords up for repeated calls to the city by angry neighbors, “just to get a violation.”

It took a flurry of motions and votes at the meeting’s end to reach the draft ordinance.

Costa got a motion and second to approve the draft ordinance that was ultimately approved. It was then amended by an investor to include a six-month window after the ordinance’s effective date to establish grandfathered uses.

The amendment passed 13-9, but was immediately questioned by another investor. Costa offered up a motion to reconsider the amendment, and that passed with 19 votes. A subsequent motion to repeal the amendment passed 18-0.

After the final motion to approve the original draft ordinance passed, Costa said, “I think that represents consensus.”