BARRE, Vt. — A wary but willing Planning Commission is entertaining a proposal that would permit multiple tiny residential dwellings to be located on some city lots.
Precisely how members would make that accommodation in the context of their ongoing rewrite of the city’s zoning regulations is a yet-to-be-threaded needle, but commissioners were cautiously receptive to the idea, initially floated by Mayor Thomas Lauzon.
Commissioners had already given some thought to “tiny houses” and Lauzon’s recently interest in locating three of them on a Brook Street lot that is now home to a dilapidated apartment house he plans to demolish prompted them to revisit the issue Thursday night.
Though Lauzon’s proposed solution — permitting one residential dwelling for every 2,400 square feet of property instead of the current 2,700-square-foot requirement — didn’t get any traction, commissioners indicated a willingness to consider accommodating proposals like his in a different way.
Consultant Brandy Saxton said the idea might best be addressed by creating a “density bonus for small footprint homes” in yet-to-be-drafted regulations for Planned Unit Developments. Those regulations, she said, could dictate how cottage housing, tiny housing and even mobile homes could be sited within a single development.
Saxton’s approach made better sense to commissioners like David Sichel, who said they were leery of making a sweeping change that could backfire in ways that were difficult to predict.
Sichel said he favored a surgical adjustment that would be difficult for property owners to exploit.
“When it comes to zoning you have to think: How can somebody use it the wrong way? How can they manipulate it,” he said, noting that not every property owner is as interested in upgrading neighborhoods as Lauzon.
“When someone who doesn’t have the character of the neighborhood in mind, what happens?” he asked.
Former mayor Peter Anthony said he shared Sichel’s concern.
“I want to distinguish between what you and I might think of as a tiny house and what some people might try to shoehorn in as junk and call it a ‘tiny house,'” Anthony said.
Anthony said he was intrigued by Lauzon’s proposal, but urged the commission to carefully craft new regulations.
“If there’s a hole there for people to make money and ruin a neighborhood, they’ll do it,” he warned.
“I don’t think any of us want to see a proliferation of poorly constructed, crappy homes,” he said. “We’re trying to build neighborhoods.”
While Anthony said establishing building standards for tiny houses might be one solution, Lauzon said requiring owners to hook on to municipal water and sewer is another.
Though tiny houses are portable, Lauzon’s preliminary conversations with Downstreet Housing and Community Development and the YouthBuild program at Resource, have involved a more permanent vision. In addition to hooking on to municipal utilities, he said the minimalist homes should be mounted on concrete pads, not wheeled trailers.
“In promoting this idea, it’s not my intention to run a travel trailer park in the city or encourage others to do it,” he said. “It’s my intention to accept and accommodate a different lifestyle.”
One question that was raised by Sichel and Chairwoman Jackie Calder involved whether the change being proposed would open the door to multiple mobile homes on a property.
Calder said mobile homes can hook on to water and sewer and be placed on pads like those described by Lauzon. Sichel agreed that was something to think about.
“How is three or four or 10 tiny houses (on one lot) different than a mobile home park?” he asked. “I’m not saying whether that’s good or bad. I just want to understand what we’re talking about.”
Saxton said she would draft language for the commission’s consideration that would provide a springboard for that discussion.
Saxton acknowledged the tiny house fad, but said there isn’t much of a market for the super-small homes that are typically in the 160- to 200-squarefoot range. She said the market for single-story homes — between 900- and 1,500 square feet — was much more pronounced. Thought should be given to incorporating them, and possibly mobile homes, in Planned Unit Development language, she said.