Housing compromise wins first council OK

A landmark series of compromises to help regulate rental property around the University of Kentucky won unanimous approval Tuesday at a work session of Lexington's Urban County Council.

Proposed changes define "family" for purposes of zoning — the city had no definition before — to limit the number of unrelated people who can live together in a rental house; and impose severe restrictions on landlords who want to build large additions on houses that create de facto dormitories in single-family neighborhoods around the city, but particularly near UK.

The compromises appear to resolve a debate that has gone on for decades.

Attorneys for landlords and permanent residents, together with law commissioner Logan Askew, city attorney Rochelle Boland and planning director Chris King, held discussions for four days last week. They agreed on zoning changes that both sides said will help stabilize and preserve neighborhoods.

One key provision defines family as any number of people related by blood, marriage, adoption or other authorized custodial relationship. The definition of family also says four or fewer unrelated people may live together.

Another provision states if a house has had five or more unrelated people living there during the past five years, future occupancy will be restricted to six or fewer people.

A key change aimed at limiting vinyl box additions states that a rental house in a single-family (R-1) or two-family (R-2) neighborhood cannot be expanded by more than 25 percent of the size it was on Jan. 1, 2010.

If the house has been expanded by 25 percent in the past, then it can't be expanded by more than 5 percent.

Exceptions to these two stipulations would have to be approved by the Board of Adjustment.

Ted Cowen, an attorney involved in reaching the compromise and a resident of Columbia Heights, said limiting expansion was a "critical selling point to the neighborhoods" because the provision addressed vinyl boxes.

Neighbors say as many as 10 people live in these large additions, bringing more cars, trash and noise to neighborhoods meant for single-family residences.

The changes also define a boarding or lodging house, a single-family and two-family dwelling, and a fraternity or sorority house.

Another change sets out conditions the Board of Adjustment will consider when determining whether five or more unrelated people qualify as a "functional family" for purposes of living together. The conditions include that individuals share a household budget, prepare food and eat together regularly, and maintain the property together.

Urban County Council members will vote again on the seven proposed zoning changes at their Thursday night council meeting. That vote will be to send the changes to the city's Planning Commission.

The Planning Commission has 60 days to approve, disapprove or modify the changes and hold a public hearing. The changes then go back to the council for a final vote. If the council approves the changes, they become part of the city zoning code.

One significant effect of the changes will be to stop the conversion of single-family houses into rental units, said attorney Mike Meuser, who led a student housing task force that met for 18 months, wrestling to identify problems addressed by the compromise.

"Like any good compromise, nobody got everything they wanted, but everybody got something they needed," Meuser said.

A concession landlords made was agreeing to the definition of family that puts a limit of four on the number of unrelated people living together, said David Burton, president of the University Area Housing Association.

If a landlord had bought a small three-bedroom house with the idea of expanding it to accommodate many more people, "They just gave up that right," Burton said. "They can expand to four individuals, but not beyond four."

Asked why landlords were willing to compromise, Burton said, "They realized some of the problems the neighborhoods were having. The majority of landlords want to be good neighbors."

Landlord Craig Hardin said landlords received "certainty" by agreeing to the compromises.

"Things not allowed will be more clearly identified in the future," Hardin said. "That's what landlords wanted. They wanted to know what is allowed, what's not allowed."

The division of building inspection will enforce the zone changes if they are enacted.

Former council member David Stevens, who was in the audience Tuesday, worked for years to get zone changes like the ones in the works now. He called the changes "significant" and said he thought some neighborhoods might be restored to mostly single-family homes again.

The University Area Housing Association and the Greater Lexington Apartment Association have committed to holding information sessions for property owners to help them understand the changes, Hardin said.

"This shows what we can accomplish by working together," said Councilwoman Diane Lawless, whose 3rd District includes many university neighborhoods.

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