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Porter planners mull changes to Town code

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By LILY REX

The Porter Plan Commission discussed non-conforming structures and use variances at its meeting last week, ultimately deciding it will consider revisions to Town code at its next meeting.

Town Planner Jim Mandon said the current code related to non-conforming structures operates under the assumption that the Town wants every structure to eventually conform, but the Board of Zoning Appeals has made lots of exceptions in recent years, and there have been talks at the Plan Commission that its unfair for homeowners to be required to seek the Town’s permission to rebuild after something unforeseen.

Due to minimum floor area requirements being increased in 2003, a home smaller than 1,500 square feet on land zoned for R1 (single-family residential, large lot) is considered a non-conforming structure, and many homes in Porter fit the bill, since Town code previously allowed smaller homes.

Currently, new homes built in R1 must be at least 1,500 square feet. If one of the many smaller homes in Porter burns down, it cannot be rebuilt without a variance from the BZA.

Mandon and Building Commissioner Michael Barry proposed changing the Code to allow a non-conforming structure to be rebuilt within its same footprint in case it is destroyed. The proposed change would apply to non-conforming structures in all zonings.

Mandon asked, “People can always go to the BZA to rebuild, but if it’s okay as far as the Town is concerned, then why make them do that?”

Planner Laura Madigan said her home is a non-conforming structure because it was built before the Code was changed. “If it burns down, I would have to go to BZA and say ‘Please, please can I rebuild my house.’”

The issue of a fire has come before the BZA in the past year, and the members of the Plan Commission have said at several meetings that the requirement could be unfairly burdensome.

Homeowners in that situation could just build a conforming structure, which would mean a larger home. Madigan said she’s lucky to have enough lot to do that, but not everyone in Porter is. Conforming structures also have to abide by limits to lot coverage, side and front yard setback rules, and others that make building a 1,500 square foot home on some lots impossible--or impossible without more variances.

Planner and Porter Fire Chief Jay Craig noted that insurance payouts aren’t likely to support someone rebuilding and upgrading to a larger home. “If you have something damaged, insurance isn’t going to pay to build a house that conforms. They’re only gonna give you enough money to build what was there,” Craig said.

For his part, Barry said owning a non-conforming structure can actually affect insurance premiums. Barry said insurance companies call him to ask if a home can be rebuilt without question after an event like a fire. “That is an issue every time a non-conforming house is purchased. It’s a question that’s in a lot of the closing documents,” Barry said. “It changes their rate of insurance, and it does kill deals.”

Madigan asked if the changes would contradict the Town’s master plan. Mandon and Barry said the master plan is more about land use and density than the details of building.

Planner Erik Wagner said he’d like to see the changes move forward.

The Planners voted unanimously to hold a public hearing to get input on the change. After the public hearing, the Plan Commission will forward a recommendation to the Town Council, which has the final say in changes to Town code.

Mandon and Barry also suggested the Planners consider changing code surrounding use variances. Currently the code contains an outdated and incomplete list of acceptable uses for land in Porter.

“Most codes don’t have a shopping list where the BZA is limited to issuing use variances for only the uses listed. I don’t think it’s wise to have that because you can’t anticipate everything,” Mandon said. Whoever wrote the list couldn’t have anticipated that blacksmith shops would fall out of fashion and that cell phone stores and vape shops would come to exist, for instance.

Barry said he ran into an issue when the recently opened Ten-Mile Brewing was seeking permits. There isn’t an allowance for or guidelines for a brewery in Town. “So whenever someone asks me to do something like that, I have go in and interpret,” Barry said.

Planner Tara Duffie suggested that keeping a list in some form could be beneficial, since the old list got the job done. Madigan suggested there’s no need for a list when Porter could just defer to state mandates. Another issue to consider, according to Barry, is that removing the list can have domino effects for other parts of the code. For example, if the list is taken out, the word “cemetery” goes with it, and there is no other guidance for where cemeteries are and are not allowed.

The Board unanimously approved Barry and Mandon to come up with a proposal for changing the code so there’s no laundry list, but there’s still a “reasonable way to make exceptions within specific zones.”

After the Plan Commission met, the BZA met briefly to elect new officers. John Kremke was elected president, and Henry Huyser was elected vice-president.

 

 

Posted 5/23/2019

 

 

 
 
 
 

 

 

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