By Cati O'Keefe.
"It's a long, nauseating story," confesses Vince Graham principal of Civitas, shaking his head when builders on the NAHB's TND tour quiz him about the zoning process for I'On, his successful 759-unit community in Mt. Pleasant, a bedroom community of Charleston, S.C.
Civitas, the developer of I'On had a green light to build its high-density community. However, despite charrettes with veteran planners, tremendous support from locals and environmentalists, and an approval to build a planned unit development, the developer was stymied by Mt. Pleasant's decision to schedule a referendum to rezone the land to block construction.
Graham found his project the subject of a South Carolina Supreme Court case tasked with deciding whether you could have a referendum on zoning. I'On won in the end, but as builders listened to Graham's five-year tale of woe, they shuddered.
Out of the deep
It's no surprise that the primary reason builders don't develop TNDs is the prospect of a lengthy, ugly approvals process. It is difficult to get approvals for mixed use and to build narrow streets to make way for alleys, among other things. "Zoning is getting somewhat better, but it is still a huge issue because most municipalities don't have the right codes, which means builders have to go through variances and extra steps, which erodes profits," notes Rob Steuteville, editor/publisher of New Urban News.
Zimmerman says community education is the answer. "When Americans hear 'density,' they picture a slab-on-grade townhouse with a car up at the door or a big suburban rental complex with a sea of parking. When they see a TND, they say, 'Oh, that's ok.'"
It's getting people to the "that's-ok" stage that's the trick. Medick tells builders to appeal to municipalities with a picture of acceptable--even desirable--growth. "Think about the location of absolutely everything from day one," advises Medick. "You need to show what the places will be like, with post offices, community centers, and so on. The land plan and architecture is key." He adds that getting approvals is often a case of being the stand-out voice, hollering to a municipality: "You will increase your tax base."
J.P. McClellan, project manager for Brylen Homes' Amelia Park, a 430-unit TND on Amelia Island, Fla., admits that approvals were hard, especially with the project's inclusion of 30 percent multifamily. "We were swimming against the stream with diversity of housing. We offered townhouses for under $200,000. But once people saw the first few renderings, they turned in favor. ... Because of the Amelia Park, our next project was much easier to approve."
Communities that are built in phases often find the second go round easier as well. In Cherry Hill Village, Canton, Mich., buyer interest in the first phase was so high there was a lottery. When it came time to build the second phase, city officials allowed the community to hit the highest end of the density range (six units to the acre vs. four) because they liked what they saw and wanted to keep prices affordable.
To tackle zoning issues, builders must put in the time and money to get it right. "Don't reinvent the wheel; spend money on consultants," urges McClellan. "They can save you a world of time. It's not cheap, but it's not as expensive as losing approvals."