Fort Worth temporarily stops issuing new home permits in TCU area

By Scott Nishimura

Fort Worth on Tuesday implemented a temporary moratorium on the building of single-family homes inside a controversial proposed TCU-area overlay that’s meant to limit the growth of so-called “stealth dorms” in neighborhoods.

Council members unanimously approved the moratorium, allowing a speedy appeal process for property owners who are denied a permit. If the planning department denies a permit and the city attorney upholds it, the property owner could appeal to the City Council, which would hear it at “the next available council meeting,” under language proposed by Councilman W.B. “Zim” Zimmerman.

The moratorium is meant to head off investors who may be trying to rush in applications for permits on new “stealth dorms” – large homes in single-family neighborhoods leased by the room to TCU students. But it ran into resistance from builders and developers who said it would penalize property owners who aren’t building stealth dorms, issue a bad-for-business message, and potentailly represent an illegal infringement on property rights.

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“There’s no actual or perceived emergency from this issue,” Jon Samson, executive vice president of the Greater Fort Worth Builders Association, told council members Tuesday night. “It has nothing to do with health, safety or welfare.”

Council members predict the time it takes to address the overlay will be short, meaning the length of the moratorium also will be short. The moratorium will last until Dec. 31, unless renewed by the council.

The staff initially proposed an appeals process that would have taken several weeks for a case to come before the council, but Zimmerman sought the short window.

The council debated whether a moratorium was necessary, but ended up agreeing it would allow a city-formed mediation group time to address the issues.

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The prospect of a moratorium apparently triggered several permit applications in the last week, city staff confirmed.

Within the overlay area that includes several neighborhoods, 35 single-family permits were in various “non-final” stages between January and September. Since Oct. 14, when Zimmerman and Council member Ann Zadeh proposed the moratorium, the city took in seven applications in the overlay area, said Dana Burghdoff, the deputy planning director.

Six were on Gordon Avenue in the Paschal neighborhood, and the seventh was in the Bluebonnet Place neighborhood, Burghdoff said. Paschal and Bluebonnet Place are among the neighborhoods that have experienced stealth dorm development.

It was not clear Tuesday what the intent was of all of the applicants, Burghdoff said.

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The moratorium doesn’t affect applications that are already in.

Fort Worth Zoning commissioners earlier in October continued their consideration of the overlay until their November meeting, meaning the first time the council could consider it would be Dec. 2.

The overlay would reduce the number of permissible unrelated adults living in one house to three from five.

The city has scheduled three public meetings for 6 p.m. Oct. 22, Oct. 29, and Nov. 5 at the University Christian Church, 2720 S. University Drive, where the mediation group will collect comments.

The stealth dorm issue has been bubbling for several years in the neighborhoods around TCU.

Investors and developers have built new single-family homes, or converted existing ones, for lease to TCU students. The houses typically have up to five bedrooms, with multiple baths, a kitchen, and no common area.

Neighborhoods have complained of noise, litter, and parking problems created by the large houses. In numerous cases, they say the new homes feature cookie-cutter designs that aren’t in keeping with the flavor of the neighborhoods. And with TCU continuing to build more on-campus housing, neighborhoods fear the large houses eventually will be left with no market.

City Council members, with the overlay, would pare the number of permissible unrelated adults living in the houses to three from five. Council members are also considering various grandfathering proposals for existing properties, but numerous property owners are arguing for no grandfathering.

Investors and business groups such as realtors and builders say the overlay represents a potentially unconstitutional taking of property. Investors say they’ve followed the rules, and the overlay with no grandfathering would take 40 percent of their rents and damage their livelihoods. They also question whether the rule change on permissible adults would be enforceable.

The staff has proposed three options on how to treat existing properties.

One proposed option for treating existing properties would grandfather all existing properties indefinitely, unless the owner discontinues leasing to more than three unrelated adults or abandons it for at least one year.

A second would allow a 15-year grandfathering, until the end of 2029. The third would all no grandfathering, with a transition period lasting until June 1, 2016.