Addressing Incompatible Teardown/Infill Housing in DeKalb County

The demolition of existing housing and replacement with infill housing has become common in the Oak Grove / Briarcliff - LaVista area of DeKalb County.

When such housing is designed to be compatible with the character of the existing neighborhood, when care is taken to perserve existing trees and avoid increasing runoff, and when the builder respects the neighbors by minimizing distruption during construction, the addition of such housing may be good for the neighborhood.   Unfortunately some builders will choose not to do any of these things unless forced to do so by regulations.

With regard to this activity, existing regulations, as currently enforced by DeKalb County, fail to accomplish their stated purposes (from Section 27-2 of Chapter 27 of the DeKalb County Code):

Similarly they also fail to accomplish the following purposes in establishing the R-100 District (from Section 27-142 of Chapter 27 of the DeKalb County Code):

Here is an example of incompatible housing on Greenglade Road:

And another on North Akin:

Particularly egregious is the placement of significant fill in front yards to evade already loose height restrictions.

An immediate first step towards a remedy is to rigorously enforce the existing building height restriction of 35 feet. From Code Section 27-31 (Definitions):

Any word or phrase not defined below but otherwise defined in the Code of Ordinances shall be given that meaning.   All other words or phrases shall be given their common ordinary meaning unless the context clearly requires otherwise.

Building height means the vertical distance from finished grade to the top of the highest roof beams on a flat or shed roof, the deck level on a mansard roof, and the average distance between the eaves and the ridge level for gable, hip, and gambrel roofs.

Although finished grade is not defined here, it is defined in Section 502 of the 2000 Standard Building Code adopted by reference:

HEIGHT, BUILDING. The vertical distance from grade plane to the average height of the highest roof surface.

GRADE PLANE. A reference plane representing the average of finished ground level adjourning the building at exterior walls.   Where the finished ground level slopes away from the exterior walls, the reference plane shall be established by the lowest points within the area between the building and the lot line or, where the lot line is more than 6 feet (1829 mm) from the building, between the building and a point 6 feet (1829 mm) from the building.

 

Beyond these steps new controls are required.   A good case can be made that DeKalb County should enact interim development controls, in accordance with DeKalb County Code Section 27-789, to control teardown/infill housing, and then should draft permanent controls.   A rough draft of what such an interim development control ordinance can be found at http://home.comcast.net/~eleom/teardowns/Interim_Teardown_Controls.htm.

Of course new and remodeled housing can be designed to be compatible and to harmonize in existing neighbordoods.   Here are a couple of examples on Greenglade Road (the house on the right is a teardown, the house on the left is a substantially remodelled existing house):

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution published a article (by David Pendered) on some of these issues on November 24, 2003: "Out with the Old ... Infill with the Huge" (see http://www.ajc.com/business/content/business/horizon/1103/24mcmansions.html).

The Atlanta Regional Commission has created a document titled "Infill Development Strageties" (see http://www.atlantaregional.com/qualitygrowth/planning/Toolkits/INFILL_%20DEVELOPMENT_TOOL.pdf).   While promoting infill development, it discusses some of the associated issues, such as "houses that don't fit the character of neighborhoods; loss of mature trees and open space; traffic schools, and drainage problems."   It suggests "establishing a code review committee to draft code revisions, special overlay districts, and guidelines for compatible designs" (page 14).   Appendix B is an Infill Model Ordinance. This Model Ordinance includes a special restriction on building height for new houses located between existing houses: "The maximum height measured at the highest height along a roof or highest ridge line of the proposed building may be no higher that five feet above the average height of the adjacent buildings measured in a like manner" (page 27).

Of course the problem of incompatible teardown/infill housing is not unique to DeKalb County.   Here are a few links to web pages from some other communities showing how they are confronting the problem.

From San Mateo CA, an "Urgency Interim Ordinance", addresses building height and size: http://www.co.sanmateo.ca.us/vgn/images/portal/cit_609/10073408mdcst-in.pdf,   ["The existing 36-foot height limit in the ... single-family residential zoning districts ... allow looming structures that: (1) are not in scale with surrounding development, (2) adversely affect a neighbor’s privacy and available sunlight, and (3) may block ocean views from public viewing points, and 2.  The existing residential setback and lot coverage requirements would continue to allow large homes that conflict with the scale of the community". ] 

From the City of Rye, New York: "Recommendations to Address House Scale Concerns": http://www.ryeny.gov/NEWS/house%20scale%20report%20May%2003.pdf.   Note Item 8, a recommendation that "the first floor elevation of a home not be more than three feet above the predevelopment grade in the front of the house" to "keep the first floor elevation closer to the predevelopment grade and reduce the height of the building as viewed from the street".

From the City of Boulder, Colorado, which is studying incompatible new construction in established residential neighborhoods: http://www.ci.boulder.co.us/planning/longrange/projects/popup_scrapeoff.html

And the National Trust for Historical Preservation has issued an excellent article on teardowns, http://www.hollywoodlakes.com/Teardowns.pdf.  Note the section "When the Ride is Over" on pdf file page 14 (document page 11):  "Once the houses in a neighborhood are seen as mere buildable lots rather than homes, the tendency is for people to move out of older properties as quickly as possible.  Prices for viable historic homes usually hit a ceiling at this point or even start to decline, and properties once praised by realtors as "charming and historic" are now described as "older home on expansive lot" - realtor code for a potential teardown."

 

Ed Marshall

DeKalb County

November 15, 2003 

(Updated January 14, 2004: Links to Atlanta Regional Commission's "Infill Development Strageties", and AJC article "Out with the Old ... Infill with the Huge" added.)