Decatur’s Not-So-Green Square Footage Requirement

Deanne mentioned in a comment a couple days ago that Decatur has a 1,500 square foot MINIMUM floor area requirements for single-family dwellings on the books.

I was shocked and awed.

Decatur, home of pedicabs and solar-powered air-conditioning Prius units, requires that you build a house that’s at least 1,500 square feet??  (I bet I’m not the only one with a house – older than the law presumably – that doesn’t currently meet this requirement.)

Diane subsequently sent me a summary of the requirement and it reads like this…

III. Floor Area Limits Related to Lot Size

The current definition of “floor area” for a residential building for the City of Decatur is as follows:

The gross horizontal areas of the several floors of a dwelling, exclusive of garages, cellars, and open porches, measured from the exterior faces of the exterior walls of a dwelling.

Presently, there are minimum floor area requirements for single-family dwellings:

R-60: 1,500 square feet

R-85: 1,800 square feet

Scott subsequently hypothesized in the same thread that the requirement is a remnant of the 1950s-1960s when the city was trying to guarantee “suburban family development of the day”.

So OK, I understand that Decatur is one of the densest cities in the state and that infill development these days is quite rare.  I also understand that many people don’t give a flip about limits on minimum square footage as they do about limits on MAX square footage.  Regardless, if we’re actually into “walkability” and being “green” and “sustainable”, shouldn’t we remove this antiquated law from the books so people who may want to downsize – in a very REAL sense of the word – can do so?

What would Sarah Susanka say?

57 thoughts on “Decatur’s Not-So-Green Square Footage Requirement”

  1. On the iPhone the title reads “Decatur’s not-so-green square”. I had hoped for a story on Decatur’s not so green square. I thought, finally a movement to remove the asphalt parking that only baits drivers into the false belief that they can park right in front of the brick store or eddie’s.

    I guess size does matter.

  2. If this isn’t a no-brainer that our City management and Commissioners can deal with in short order, I can’t imagine what would be.

  3. Agreed. There is a house just built in Oakhurst that has 5 feet on one side and 3 on the other. The developer told the neighborhood he was going to build every square inch, neighborhood and greenspace be damned.

    1. This house, BTW, was built on an old R-50 lot and gets around most zoning rules. I think we need more neighborhood and less developer friendly rules…

  4. wow. I wish my house had 1000! granted it was built in 1923, but sometimes I’d like a little more room!

  5. Are there any instances where the owner/ builder was not allowed to build a smaller house? I can’t imagine that this law really affects anyone. Why are we bothering with laws that don’t matter?

    1. No builder is going to do that. See my example above. It matters because it’s stupid and irrelevant and encourages, not discourages, overbuilding.

    2. You’re right that this law won’t affect many people. But it’s still a slightly surprisingly thing to see on the books of a city that has a “sustainability board”. I’m not necessarily saying abolish the requirement, but I’d say that 1,500 sq feet seems like a lot.

      Perhaps we could just need to push it down to 1,000?

      1. 1000 sq ft is still more house than some of us really use. My house is chockful of my treasures, but as far as actually living in all the space? I could dwell smaller- and have less to clean!

      1. I don’t reckon I know…but I do know it wont be me.

        Hoboville, Winnona Park, Decatur, Ga.

  6. Back in the day, McMansions had not been imagined, Decatur was not hip and chic, had no historic districts, and real estate here was generally felt to be ‘affordable’. There were houses with double lots, and there was a time when these were aggressively located and developed. My recollection is that this minimum standard was revised in the 1980s to make certain speculative builders didn’t come in and build a ‘minimal’ house in an existing neighborhood, thereby possibly diminishing the value of surrounding properties. In the 1970s much of the city was zoned for condominiums, which explains some of the pockets of vintage townhomes/condos. Times and attitudes change.

    When the first land use plan was developed as an underlying guide to zoning, a lot of properties were rezoned. There is no R-50 now, and R-60 requires a 10′ sideline setback. NB I’m wondering how this Oakhurst house got approved? You should not be able to just “get around most zoning rules”.

    1. Trust me, a lot of people contacted the city, including a lawyer. Apparently it was grandfathered in and can use R-60 home sizes even though it’s on an old R-50. I didn’t save the correspondence I received, but Amanda Thompson and Rick Logan were involved in the approval. Neighbors measured the lots on the side. The AC unit is about a foot from the next door property line. It’s awful but it sold.

      1. Maybe I’m thinking of a different house. I assumed you were talking about one of the two new houses on Mead, which both have 64+ foot wide lots.

  7. The square footage of the resident is one factor in calculating assessed values and thereby impacts the tax digest for the city.

    1. I got a huge laugh out of that typo – square footage of the resident. HA!

      I had a mental picture of a tax rate table based on the size of the homeowner. The Dom DeLouise’s would pay higher taxes than the Twiggy’s!

      1. Dom Delouise?? Twiggy?? Did this thread just enter a cultural reference time warp? 🙂

        Gen X & Gen Y

        1. After I hit the submit button, I said to myself, “self, you’re really not that old, but these names will make people think you are.” I’m in my mid-40’s, but these names came to mind first because “Fatso” (starring Dom DeLouise) was on TV the other day, and I saw a “what do they look like now” recently, and Twiggy was one of the people they profiled.

          How about Ruben Studdard and Taylor Swift? 🙂

  8. Wow, this house in Oakhurst has gotten a lot of comments! Its size bothers me every time I walk/drive past it, and that’s every day since I have a child at Oakhurst. I thought there was a law that only 40% of a lot could be impermeable, and this house clearly fills more than that percentage. I did ask a worker about this, and he stated that there’s at least 100 feet of land behind the house. I don’t believe this. In addition, the distance between the garage and the property line doesn’t look to be more than 5 feet, which I’m guessing is not to code.

    This house is a bit different looking than all the other new “craftsmans”, but the whole movement in general feels to me like it’s commonizing the old charming bungalows.

    1. Meh. Live and let live, I say. I don’t want/need a McMansion, but I don’t want to live in a garden shed, either, given my druthers.

  9. If you look at the tax plot map you can see that the lot is about 400 feet deep, and more than a half acre overall. So the lot supports a house this size

    There is also the north side of the property that originally had Leyden street running between Mead and Ansley, but was never built – the curb cut is still there. I think that contributes to the developer’s ability to get the house so close to that property line, although I’m not sure how.

  10. It’s not that smaller houses are ‘illegal’ but that they are not automatically permitted. An owner who wants to build a house that does not meet standards can request a variance for their specific project which is voted on in a public hearing before the Zoning Board of Appeals. This allows residents and city staff to review the development proposal and the ZBA can choose to allow it or not based on the merits of the project. Special conditions can also be attached during negotiations.

    1. Thank you for this information and voice of reason. Now, let’s all get back to doing something more meaningful. Myself included.

      1. There’s meaningful conversation to be had in discussing Decatur’s current zoning vs future zoning. Several scenerios were given at Monday’s “Aging In Place” session that would require zoning adjustments. Unless we’re going to keep relying on variances, the time is ripe for a zoning ordinances overhaul. Can’t imagine that all the City Folks aren’t thinking that too. Making now the ideal time to discuss all things zoning!

        Community Academy recap:

  11. DM, using your logic (a focus only on size), a bus is less green than a car.

    Surely it’s some combination of size, the number of people using it, and how efficient it is. The rainshine house on Wilton looks larger than 1500 sq feet…

    1. DM, correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think the point is that smaller houses are inherently greener than larger ones. The point is that a minimum of 1,500 sq ft forces a larger house than some people might want or need, unless they go through a variance process. and that minimum will seem more and more inappropriately large if we follow through and try to make Decatur more sustainable and more welcoming and feasible for aging in place. And I agree with Deanne, it’s yet another excellent example of why we need to overhaul our zoning ordinances.

      1. There is probably some small association between house size and energy use, but I would imagine that a 1600 sq foot house with a particularly green owner can use much less energy than a 1400 sq foot house owned by someone else. So, this is not really about being green, is it? DM suggests otherwise.

        Surely evidence of what the community wants can be found by reviewing existing variance applications. When I applied for my deck variance, all the other variances on file at that time related to people wanting to building something bigger than what was allowed, not smaller.

        So if you are interested in helping people avoid variances…

        1. Also presented was the concept of pocket neighborhoods- a group of smaller homes (ADA friendly) with a common lawn area. It could be very appealing for a variety of folks.

          (They let you flip through the variances file?)

          1. The ZBA publishes an agenda each month that gives a terse description of the nature of the request. I would also imagine you can see the files if you want to… why not?

            1. Yeah…that make sense. I was thinking that the application paperwork would contain more personal info (financial,etc.) than folks need to know.

            1. Thanks for the link & the search term! (That dang muncicode site!) I’m glad that there’s something on the books. Bowing to your knowledge it’ll work for a smaller sized homes pocket community.

            2. Gladys, you’re correct that there are ways around the ordinances (the ZBA and PUDs). There are almost always ways to accomplish something, given enough persistence. But the question at the heart of the Strategic Plan is not can something theoretically be accomplished but, rather, are our codes aligned with our strategic objectives?

              It’s a basic concept. If your strategic planning documents, collaboratively created with the community, say you want to encourage Theoretical Thing A and the codes you have on your books prevent that or present a disincentive in the form of extra hoops to jump through, that’s a mismatch that results in a lot of wasted time and effort, just so people can end up doing what the community has already stated it would like to see.

              The ZBA’s job is based on the premise that the codes already reflect the desires of the community, such that they can then evaluate if something that may not comply as presented might comply in spirit and still contribute to the intent. Their job is not to further the will of the community by providing a “work-around” scenario.

              PUDs are also a poor zoning tool because they are largely subjective and provide no predictability to adjacent landowners. With uncertainty comes reduced value and NIMBY outrage, often completely justified, once something is proposed. The very concept of PUDs is an admission that existing regs are insufficient or mismatched with growth goals. I don’t know how many PUD applications you’ve been part of but it’s not uncommon for them to be approved or denied based solely on a developer’s level of “PUD Mojo.” That is, based on his level of political connection and influence rather than on the merits of his proposal.

              So, a lot of words to say, yes, you are correct, but to also stress that we could do better. Personally, I have no opposition to improvement. If something that ends up in the Strategic Plan is ill-served by our ordinances, we should change them.

              1. Scott, I agree we could (and should) do better, and zoning regs need to be revised periodically (and probably more often than every 25 years) to reflect the current goals of the community. As I said in my first post on this topic, times and attitudes change. Someone has to do the comprehensive review of the codes, propose revisions, and have community input/review sessions. Last time I think the Planning Commission did a lot of this, and that’s probably the best place for this to originate again since they and the ZBA have to deal with the inadequacies in current code. Anyone here on PC?

    2. But these are single family homes, not public transit vehicles. A large majority will house between 1 and 5 people. Of course use matters, but I don’t see how that invalidates a concern about size.

  12. Fully support the 1500 minimum. Who wants a 500 square foot track house built next to their nice home? Thus is no longer the Decatur of 15 years ago…

    1. I see your point, but there’s a great deal of room between 500 and 1500.

      Would you also object if it were say, 1300 or 1400 instead?

    2. A similar argument has been made for large houses next to smaller houses. Maybe the zoning restrictions could be removed and replaced by neighborhood covenants.

    3. It depends on the neighborhood. Most original Decatur Heights houses are probably 900-1200 sq ft., so a smaller home would fit right in. ( A 500 sq ft house would be perfect on a couple of lots.) Not to begrudge folks who want a bigger house. You just shouldn’t need a variance to build a modest sized one.

    4. A 500 sq ft home is not, by definition, a tract house. (Nor is it a track house.)

      tract house = One of numerous houses of similar or complementary design constructed on a tract of land. (The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 4th edition Copyright © 2010 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.)

      tract house = a residential house built to a common or frequently repeated design as part of a housing development (Webster’s New World College Dictionary Copyright © 2010 by Wiley Publishing, Inc.)

      Decatur is full of tract housing–some built 50, 70 or 90 years ago and now considered historic (reasonable people can differ about the true historic value of specific properties). In my opinion, much of the new construction–some of the largest, most expensive homes in the City now–could be characterized as tract housing. Instead of lining up on a continuous tract, they’re scattered about in one’s and two’s, but they tend to replicate plans and design elements frequently enough to create the same effect. I’d as soon have a 500 sq ft custom home built next door to me, as a one that’s 4-5 times as big and looks like it came out of the same catalog as half the new houses in town.

  13. Regardless, if we’re actually into “walkability” and being “green” and “sustainable”, shouldn’t we remove this antiquated law from the books so people who may want to downsize – in a very REAL sense of the word – can do so?

    We have lots of laws on the books in Decatur (the parking requirements immediately come to mind) that do not promote “walkability,” “being green,” and sustainability.

    However, our City Commission is pretty ignorant and spineless. They are not going to do something unless they are told by their Overlord.

  14. I think the demand for newly constructed houses smaller than 1500 SF is about zero. If there were, then a variance could be applied for.

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