ONLINE EXCLUSIVE! – Zoning debate could affect commuter students who live nearby

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    Residents in University Place have their work cut out for them.In the latest phase of a resident-requested zoning change in the neighborhood, not all homeowners can agree on what they want to see happen with the 41 acres their properties sit on.

    While some residents want to see their neighborhood rezoned as single-family in order to preserve its character, others take a different stance. If the neighborhood – currently zoned for two-family residences and home to a number of TCU students – were to change, owners who choose to rent out their homes and garage apartments would fall under stricter ordinances, and real estate developers looking to profit from duplex construction would have to search for property elsewhere.

    While some University Place residents are concerned about retaining rental options with their garage apartments and homes, others want to stop the development of duplex housing to preserve the environment of the neighborhood as well as the facade of the 1920s and 1930s Tudor-style homes.

    Residents are halfway through a recommended 60 days of continued discussion following a Sept. 14 Zoning Commission Hearing, and the dialogue has been opened concerning property rights issues.

    Jill Wachter, who has lived in University Place on and off since 1939 and rents out a home on Rogers Avenue, has a garage apartment. She said she has always had the chance to do with her property as she wanted. This includes retaining the right to rent out the garage apartment behind her home.

    If the single family zoning change were to go through, the structure could sit vacant for no more than two years if she wanted to retain the right to rent it out. Wachter said she would have to run utilities in the garage apartment and have electricity turned on.

    “I’m going to have to prove use of it so it doesn’t sit vacant,” she said.

    “This is taking away property rights that I’ve had since 1939,” she said. “I just want to see the neighborhood remain the same as it has.”

    Brian Livingston, University Place Homeowners’ Association past president, said the majority of homeowners with garage apartments are comfortable with the nonconforming rules associated with the single-family zoning.

    According to the Fort Worth Municipal Codes, the nonconforming rules state that residents may choose not to conform to a specific zoning, given that no structural variations are made to their building. However, if more than 75 percent of a nonconforming structure is torn down or burns down, the new structure in its place must conform to the zoning. Residents who decide to conform to the zoning would not have the option to return to nonconforming use.

    Livingston owns a house with a garage apartment and said 20 of the 34 homeowners with garage apartment structures are in favor of the zoning change.

    “The people who were opposed at the hearing were not residents who were afraid of losing their garage apartment rights,” Livingston said.

    The majority of people opposed to the zoning change are not University Place residents, but rather property owners who rent out their homes, he said.

    “It’s not the garage apartment owners pitted against people who want the change. It’s forces outside that are trying to change the neighborhood,” Livingston said.

    Livingston identified these forces as real estate developers who invest in density housing.

    “If people who live here begin to feel threatened because of small-scale duplex owners, then they will start leaving. And that’s when blight sets in,” Livingston said. “It just takes a few bulldozers to appear for a neighborhood to decline. The results won’t be positive.”

    Fort Worth City Zoning Commission Chairman, Bill Greenhill, said there was a strong perception of opposition to the University Place zoning case. Greenhill said part of this perception was based on the number of opposition letters sent to commissioners before the public hearing.

    Still, Greenhill said he doesn’t fully know what to expect until the day of a hearing.

    “When the day comes, you never know what will fill the room. This day, the day was ending, and the room was filling up,” he said. “It gives you a feeling that this one’s going to be an important one.”

    Jesse Torres, planning manager for the Fort Worth Development Review Department, has worked on the University Place zoning case since March 2004. He said he saw about six or seven letters opposing the zoning change request.

    “The concerns that I’ve heard said that if people didn’t like what they saw, why didn’t they just move to another neighborhood?” Torres said.

    Torres said people who bought their properties with the intent of using the garage apartment and are opposed to the change do not want to be a part of the nonconforming rules and don’t want to be told how to use their property.

    One option for residents is a planned development. This is a district that permits specific commercial, industrial, residential/commercial and mixed uses, according to the Fort Worth development department Web site. Planned developments normally require site plan approval prior to development, and would allow certain residents to opt out of the zoning change to customize their individual zoning.

    Torres said the city does not typically consider planned developments for neighborhoods.

    “We only use it as a final option,” he said.

    Now, residents are trying to sift out which property owners are concerned with their garage apartments and which are concerned with renting.

    Candyce Drum, who lives in Austin and has rented out her home in University Place since 1992, said the zoning change would put restrictions on something that doesn’t need restricting. Right now, TCU students are renting her house and her garage apartment. Drum said people who rent out their garage apartments see that there haven’t been any problems and they don’t see why the neighborhood should add rules and regulations.

    “We want to be able to live there or rent it,” Drum said. “The flexibility is what we want to have with the house.”

    David Strong, a University Place resident in favor of the zoning change, said homeowners with garage apartment structures would have more flexibility than other homeowners because they would get the benefits of single-family zoning while their garage apartments are grandfathered in with the two-family zoning.

    “I don’t understand that the people with garage apartments would not be in line to sign, because they will be in a position to have a privilege that the rest of us don’t,” Strong said. “I think that they have every advantage in the world. I can’t understand why they won’t have their cake and eat it too.”

    Strong said that the people residents are most concerned with are those who are in University Place for business – to rent out homes or develop duplexes.

    “The city has told us ‘don’t come to us after the duplexes have gone up and the neighborhood has deteriorated,'” he said. “We have the opportunity to protect it.”

    Not every neighborhood in Fort Worth has had this opportunity.

    In Arlington Heights, located near Interstate Highway 30 and Montgomery Street, residents have not considered rezoning their neighborhood to single-family, simply because of its size, said Winn Schultz, Arlington Heights Neighborhood Association vice president and chairperson.

    “It’s extremely laborious,” he said. “We simply do not have the manpower for people to beat the streets and get 2,200 signatures.”

    University Place, by comparison, only has 157 homes from which to obtain signatures.

    Schultz said although duplex development is not a problem in Arlington Heights, increased town home development due to a number of two-family properties has disrupted the aesthetic appeal of the neighborhood, which is predominately 1920s- and 1930s-style bungalows.

    “The neighborhood is predominately single-story. Now the true two-story structures really stick out,” Schultz said.

    Dan Odom, broker and realtor for Award Company Realtors, has sold homes in University Place and also owns property in the neighborhood. Odom said that residents may want to think twice before limiting their property usage.

    “I think everyone has to stop and think and be very cautious about what they ask for,” Odom said. “If times change, and if they’re not careful, they may not be able to lease out their garage apartments.

    “It goes back to property owners and what the property owners want to do as a united front.”

    However, Livingston said he expects opposition to the zoning change.

    “There is no way that we can negotiate duplex zoning for a portion of the people,” he said.

    Livingston also said he thinks it doesn’t make sense that single families should have to bend to people whose interest is commercially driven.

    “This neighborhood has been around for 85 years,” Livingston said. “During that time, it’s been safe, it’s been vibrant, and it’s been organic to TCU. It’s worth keeping.