Every zoning case initiates the sending of ballots to every property owner within 500 feet of the proposal. The list of property owners is supplied by the city, which use the list to mail ballots. Since the documents in a zoning case are public record, developers and their representatives often secure the list to educate and influence as well as to secure feedback on their project.
It’s a delicate dance where opposition might be turned into support for a project. As I wrote previously, response rates for these ballots are famously low. There are times when the zoning request is so tiny, it would only matter to the city – in which case there’s barely a return. In more controversial cases where opposition is high and well-organized, the returns are much higher.
All this balloting matters for several reasons. Obviously, the City Plan Commission and City Council want to know what the immediate neighbors, who will be impacted most, think. They also want to understand the basis for their opposition and whether there are common, valid themes. If a vast majority of respondents hate one thing, and it’s a changeable and bad thing, the city can use their powers to make it work.
Balloting also increases the burden on the case to pass. Regardless of the percentage of ballots returned, if more than 20 percent of the landmass within 200-feet opposes a zoning change, it then requires a supermajority in city council – three quarters – to pass. While not impossible, it becomes a much higher bar to clear than a simple majority.
The potential of having more than 20 percent opposition is why projects conduct community outreach. And the bigger the proposed project, the more opposition, the more intense the outreach.
As I reported last week, as part of the proposed development of the former Mi Escuelita Preschool on Webb Chapel just north of Walnut Hill, the city posts ballot tallies for in-process zoning cases. As a reminder, David Gleeson and David Weekley Homes are wanting to build 35 homes on the 4.4-acre parcel instead of the as-zoned for 19 homes. And while not posted online, if you visit City Hall, you can also read the returned ballots and any associated comments. Let’s see what they say so far.
The lead picture has comments from two ballots – one would only support if the development was gated while the other opposed it because it was gated. The early iteration of the project had it gated, while the most recent plan has it un-gated. The difference in these two ballots reflects the timing of their return – but not the sentiment. One wants the new neighbors to be part of the neighborhood while the other seems to want them separate.
I’m pretty sure every zoning request to increase density is met with those who oppose it. FYI, in January 2019, Minneapolis abolished the “single family” zoning classification allowing up to three residential units on any lot. The city’s goal is to address the need for housing before they get stuck in the overpriced trap found in many coastal cities where affordability is almost non-existent and building caters to the luxury market. Dallas should heed such things.
But anyway, in this case we’re talking about 16 extra homes on a 4.4-acre parcel. Frankly I do not see this argument gaining traction because it’s not credible. A total of 35 homes on 4.4 acres can’t be considered overbuilt in anyone but a NIMBY’s mind.
Sure, these homes won’t have the lot sizes of their 50- to 60 year-old neighbors, but I guarantee their lots were a lot smaller than those of the prior generation – provided it wasn’t pasture. Time marches on and urban areas become denser. Thirty-five homes on this lot should be seen as a long-term blessing. If the lot were redeveloped in 10 or 20 years, it would be much higher density. Building now stops that clock.
By far the most prolific concern was on traffic – people have a very unrealistic bug about traffic. Here’s the reality. In 2014, TXDoT measured traffic on Webb Chapel going north/south, between Royal Lane and Merrill Road (a few blocks north of the proposed development). There were 8,547 going north from Merrill Road daily and 8,948 going south towards Merrill (and eventually Walnut Hill Lane). That’s 17,495 cars per day on this stretch of Webb Chapel Road.
How much traffic will the as-zoned 19 homes create? Let’s assume two cars per home and two round trips per car per day. That’s 76 additional round trips per day or 152 journeys added to 17,495. It adds 0.87 percent more cars – less than one percent – at the high end. The 16 additional homes add 64 roundtrips or 128 one-way journeys to Webb Chapel – another three-quarters of one percent. All totaled, Webb Chapel will gain 1.6 percent more traffic from the 35 homes – again, at the high-end of estimation.
Translation? No one will ever notice. Translation-translation? The city won’t consider traffic as a deciding factor because it’s too small.
Property Values and Resulting Taxes
Some respondents think the new project would increase their taxes more than the walloping increases we’re seeing already. Others believe the development will decrease the value of the neighborhood.
I say this as someone whose assessed value doubled in six years – the city can’t make development decisions based on their impact to surrounding property values. If they did, nothing would change – in fact, it would deteriorate.
Out of Place
So far, I’ve been a party pooper on resident concerns because I think they’re unrealistic and baseless. However, there are two areas where there is potential.
Several ballots commented on the development being out of place with the surrounding neighborhood. This is unsurprising since half a century separates the market trends they were aiming to capture with buyers. That said, I would demand to see the actual home plans for the proposed development. I would want to sit down with Weekley designers and see if there are home exteriors that might work better to marry the two areas. In a prior column, I said 1960s ranches next to Weekley’s typical stucco, stacked stone and 4-by-8-foot sheets of painted Hardie Board is unnecessarily jarring. Weekley should be more than willing to work with the neighborhood on compromise exteriors that serve both their and the existing neighbors’ purpose.
Finally, there’s privacy. Many people buy in single-story ranch neighborhoods because their backyard is protected from peering neighbors. While similar to high-rise view arguments, I think on the ground, the privacy encroachment is more personal.
But while I doubt the neighborhood would get Weekley to build only single-story homes where they back-up to existing single-story homes, there should still be room for compromise. Are there window placements that alleviate peering? Can any of the existing mature trees be moved to increase privacy?
There are 13 existing homes that would face some peering. Weekley should sit down with those owners to figure out solutions as much as possible. Sure, it’s more hands-on than a builder of hundreds (thousands?) of homes per year is used to, but so what, any betterment is a win-win.
Some think getting Weekley kicked out of the deal will solve everything. It won’t. There will be another developer right behind them wanting the same or more. Every neighborhood’s goal should be to secure as much meaningful compromise as they can on stuff that matters and is controllable – and jettison the very ignorable NIMBY-ism.
Remember: High-rises, HOAs and renovation are my beat. But I also appreciate modern and historical architecture balanced against the YIMBY movement. In 2016, 2017 and 2018, the National Association of Real Estate Editors recognized my writing with three Bronze (2016, 2017, 2018) and two Silver (2016, 2017) awards. Have a story to tell or a marriage proposal to make? Shoot me an email email@example.com. Be sure to look for me on Facebook and Twitter. You won’t find me, but you’re welcome to look.