At first glance, it appeared to be just one more example of a town, desperate to get a bankrupt residential project moving again, caving in to a builder’s demands for variances to relax construction standards and save money.

At least that's how one local report portrayed the 4-3 vote by the planning commission of Middletown, Ohio, a suburb of Cincinnati, to grant two variances to Fischer Homes for many of the 274 homesites Fischer will build on in that community’s Renaissance I and II developments.

That favorable vote prompted Marty Kohler, the town's planning director, to cry foul; one local newspaper quoted Kohler as accusing Fischer Homes of “blackmail.” (Kohler did not return Builder’s calls requesting comment.) The commission’s chairman, Tom Brickey, who voted no on the variances, was quoted as saying that Fischer—that market’s largest builder—could absorb any financial costs it might have incurred to meet the development’s construction requirements.

But Bob Hawksley, Fischer Homes’ COO, insists that the circumstances that led to the vote—which came after a five-and-a-half-hour meeting between the planning commission and the builder’s CEO Henry Fischer—were a lot more complicated than they’ve been depicted.

The Renaissance project, which Middletown’s planners envisioned as the town’s showcase community, had been dormant since its developers went bankrupt in June 2009. Only 68 of the 529 homes proposed for Renaissance had been built and sold when Fischer Homes last year acquired homesites there through a receivership.

Two ordinances that Fischer Homes wasn’t thrilled about were a requirement that all roof overhangs be 12 inches, and that masonry needed to cover the exteriors of the front first floor and the sides of the house that are visible from the street.

Hawksley, who spoke with Builder a week after the March 10 vote, contends that the overhang ordinance didn’t specify how it should be measured or even what constituted an overhang; and that the masonry requirement (which allowed for materials like Hardiboard) was overkill. Nevertheless, “we could have built to what Middletown’s ordinances called for and made money,” he says. In fact, Fischer Homes presented more than a dozen house plans to the Commission that would have met the town’s standards.

However, the builder, says Hawksley, had told the town that it wanted to come up with a better plan for this community. Fischer intends to use 50 house plans and 370 elevations at Renaissance, several of which include side-loaded garages. Henry Fischer argued that his company needed variances from the overhang and masonry requirements to be able to execute its designs and avoid an extensive redrawing of its house plans.

“Our elevations include all kinds of styles: Tudor, Craftsman, French Country, which by the way includes a hip roof with a 12-inch overhang,” says Hawksley. “But what we wanted to avoid is having three or four truss drawings for every style the homeowner wants.” Fischer’s homes with side-entry garages call for more brick in the front, “and if we’re building an all-brick front, we want the overhang to be want it is.” Hawksley also notes that extended overhangs in some plans “would have ended up in the windows, and we wouldn’t have been able to offer that elevation.”

Residents on its side

Fischer convinced the commission to amend its ordinance and allow overhangs as little as 1.5 inches. The commission also allowed the builder to limit how much brick it used to four feet high on side walls of 132 homes and to eliminate the use of masonry entirely, if it chooses to do so, on 82 lots where Fischer Homes intends to build its Maple Street series of houses.

Hawksley concedes that the planning commission may not have been aware of his company’s plans initially because the builder’s acquisition of these lots was done quickly. However, he adds that Fischer Homes went to the residents in this community to explain what it wanted to do prior to its seeking variances from the town.

“We had practically unanimous support from the homeowners,” says Hawksley, who praises the residents for holding the homeowners association together when this community went bust. When Fischer Homes came in, it asked residents to serve on an advisory board and reduced their annual HOA fees by more than $200 per house.

There was some grumbling about Fischer Homes including its Maple Street series, whose homes start in the low $100s, compared to its Masterpiece homes that sell for between $350,000 and $400,000. However, Hawksley says his company has agreed to do all-brick wraps on every home it builds in Renaissance I. And the Maple Street homes will be “podded” in the back of the community, separate from the builder’s Masterpiece and Designer series homes, which will be grouped into their own enclaves.

The rest of Renaissance is currently undeveloped land and has been put up for auction. Fischer Homes, says Hawksley, has bid on another 20 lots. (At presstime, it hadn’t heard back from the bank that owns them.) And the builder is considering acquiring more land at this project. When it bought the lots it currently owns there, the trustee and lender granted the builder architectural control over the community’s main boulevard. “So we’re going to have a say in what this will look like.”

John Caulfield is senior editor for Builder magazine.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Cincinnati, OH.