As teardown-rebuild wave continues, Fairway council asks for review of new home approval process

A teardown-rebuild project underway in Fairway in 2016.

As the wave of teardown-rebuild projects in the city continues, the Fairway City Council has asked its planning commission to take a fresh look at the building code and review process. But one member of the planning commission is raising concerns that changes to the status quo could eliminate important checks on homebuilders.

The council on Monday directed the planning commission to conduct a review of  chapter 15 of the building code, which last underwent a major rewrite in 2014. The city has approved a half dozen changes to it since then, but none of them have been major. The document serves as a guideline for development and redevelopment projects in regards to “health, safety and welfare,” said Mayor Melanie Hepperly, and city staff use the document on a daily basis to determine whether building plans meet the city’s standards.

City officials in recent weeks had also suggested that the planning commission take a look at what types of projects require formal planning commission review, saying that some projects — like new homes — don’t necessarily need to be approved by the commission if they meet the technical requirements laid out in the code.

The council unanimously approved the measure to request the planning commission conduct its review. But not everyone welcomed the decision. Fairway resident and planning commission member Andrew Lagerstrom expressed concerns that potentially eliminating a planning commission review for new home projects would make it easier for builders to construct new homes that don’t fit the surrounding neighborhood. The city council and planning commission “has not done well enough in the past decade” to enforce design standards, Lagerstrom said.

“[This] is a step backwards for the City of Fairway,” Lagerstrom said. “I hope the city council reconsiders this, especially from the overwhelming response from the citizens.”

One resident echoed those sentiments. Todd Haulstead said he was concerned about the way city leaders have been considering redevelopment, specifically in Ward 4, where he lives. While he supports redevelopment in his ward, Haulstead said the scale and pattern of homes being built there “create a kind of caste system” with huge new homes adjacent to more modest older ones.

Haulstead referenced plans for a house being built at 60th Street and Catalina Street that he said could not be considered in line with the design of the existing neighborhood. Unlike the single-story, 1950-style homes found in Ward 4, other wards have larger homes, Haulstead said. The placement of a two-story home between single-story homes in Ward 4 violate the scale and patterns portion of the language currently used in chapter 15, he said.

“We need to analyze the comprehensive impact that this has on schools and infrastructure,” Haulstead said. “Decreasing power of the planning commission is the wrong decision.”

On Monday, City Administrator Nathan Nogelmeier listed several items in the development review process that may need to be considered for revision due to unclear guidelines or inconsistencies in the code as presently written. Those items include:

  • Curb cuts and driveways
  • Square footage requirements for single-story homes
  • Wind and solar energy installations
  • Tree placement
  • Generator placement
  • Fence materials

Nogelmeier said he hoped a planning commission review of existing language would open up a dialogue between the city council and the planning commission about potential revisions. Hepperly noted that defining the terms “character” and “style” currently used in chapter 15 of the building code is an issue city council has been dealing with, and that she has been asking for a specific definition of the two terms for nearly a year.

Councilmember David Watkins said that if plans for a house meets the code, the plan should not be rejected due to neighborhood complaints.

Correction: The original version of the story stated that chapter 15 of the code had last been updated significantly 10 years ago. The text has been updated to reflect that major revisions were approved in 2014.