TCU overlay passes zoning, but rental registry debate is next

By Scott Nishimura

(UPDATE: Mediation committee haggles over structure of rental registration.)

A hard-fought compromise on a controversial, proposed TCU-area zoning ordinance that would limit the growth of so-called “stealth dorms” held together before the city’s Zoning Commission Wednesday, which unanimously approved it and sent it onto the City Council.

The commissioners approved a zoning overlay reached a week ago by a city-appointed mediation group that pares the number of permissible unrelated adults living in single-family homes in neighborhoods around TCU to three from five, and allows grandfathering in perpetuity. Property owners surrender the grandfathered use if they discontinue it for more than two years.

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The City Council will vote Dec. 2 on the zoning overlay, aimed at stopping the growth of large single-family homes – newly built or converted existing properties – that often have five bedrooms and five baths, are homogenous in design, and are leased by the room to TCU students. The commissioners’ sending of the case to the council set the stage for the mediation committee’s next round of debate, over the details of a rental registration that owners of one and two-family rental properties in the overlay area would have to sign up for.

A smaller group of representatives from six neighborhood associations who were represented on the mediation group plans to recommend provisions in the registry that would include potential suspension or revocation of registration for certain levels of criminal conduct at rental properties.

The mediation group is meeting at 6 p.m. Wednesday at the University Christian Church to begin wrangling over the registration requirements. The group, in voting 18-3 last week for the overlay agreement, required the City Council vote at the same time on the registration and its structure.

“What we need the rental registration to do is incentivize the property owners to manage their tenants better,” Mike Coffey, a committee member and University West resident, said in an interview Wednesday.

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Coffey declined to identify the six neighborhoods, other than University West, who sent representatives to a private meeting Monday to discuss their approach to the zoning commission, the mediation group’s next meeting, and the City Council.

University West residents remain divided, with a good number against any grandfathering and wanting to speak out at the zoning commission, Coffey said. In the end, one University West resident spoke for the overlay, but against grandfathering.

“Nobody likes grandfathering, but we want the overlay,” Coffey said.

“We win” with the overlay, because it changes property owners’ rental economics and makes it much less likely new stealth dorms will be built, said Coffey, who made the mediation committee’s motion last week to approve the overlay agreement and connect it to simultaneous City Council approval of a rental registration.

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But, he added, a rental registry with teeth is critical.

It would address homesowners’ concerns about loud parties, litter, parking problems. 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.

Several committee members who voted for the draft ordinance spoke in favor of it to the Zoning Commission Wednesday, and a handful of committee members who voted against it reiterated their positions to the commissioners.

Jon Samson, executive vice president of the Greater Fort Worth Builders Association, which has opposed the overlay provisions unless they were applied citywide, told the Zoning Commission his organization has changed its stance and was now in favor of the overlay.

“Although it does infringe on some property rights,” particularly those of owners who won’t be allowed to explore a five-adult use because they won’t already have it by the ordinance’s effective date, “this is the best solution to appease some concerns,” Samson, a mediation committee member, said.

The city hasn’t been able to fully quantify the depth of the stealth dorm problem, he noted, but he acknowledged neighborhoods’ concerns are “legitimate concerns.”

Investors have also argued they’re being unfairly villified for responding to market demand and legally maximizing use of their property, that the ordinance gives landlords incentive to discriminate against families in order to maintain grandfathered status, and that it would represent an illegal taking of their property for the city to implement the overlay without grandfathering in perpetuity.

Zoning Commissioner Charles Edmonds, during Wednesday’s hearing, said he saw no way the overlay would be appoved by the City Council without generous grandfathering.

Under the Zoning Commission’s vote, property owners who want to claim “legal, non-conforming status” for four or five unrelated adults must complete rental registration by March 31, 2015.

Investors came to the middle during the mediation group’s talks when they received the generous grandfathering. Many of the neighborhood groups had initially started from a position of arguing for no grandfathering.

“We had a chance to do a good thing for the city of Fort Worth, and ourselves,” Michael Dike, an investor and committee member, told the zoning commissioners.

“You’ve seen a lot of groups that started out here,” Chris Powers, another investor and a committee member told the commissioners, stretching his arms out, “come to the middle.”

“I feel the mediation’s proposal is the best for all parties,” Martha Jones, vice president of the Bluebonnet Hills Neighborhood Association and a committee member who initially was opposed to grandfathering before the mediation group started meeting, said. “It’s huge that we came to this conclusion.”

Bob Adams, a Berkeley resident, Historic Fort Worth board member, and mediation committee member who voted against the group agreement, told the zoning commissioners that “Historic Fort Worth is concerned about the effect that these five-bedroom houses have on our single-family neighborhoods.”

He asked the commissioners to delay their vote so they could consider the rental registration piece of the package with the overlay. The mediation group’s agreement called only for the requirement that the rental registration piece be complete by the time the council votes.

Greg Jackson, president of the Berkeley Place Neighborhood Association, reiterated his association’s stance that virtually unlimited grandfathering “doesn’t do anything to correct the problem as it exists now.”