Fort Worth

Fort Worth Zoning Commission delays decision on TCU-area overlay

After a heated three-hour meeting, the Fort Worth Zoning Commission voted unanimously on Wednesday to delay for 30 days a decision on a proposed ordinance to restrict the number of unrelated adults who may live in a single-family home in neighborhoods around Texas Christian University.

“Even though we have heard a lot of testimony from each side, with all due respect to the hard work the staff has put in on this, it hasn’t cooked long enough,” Commissioner Wanda Conlin said.

“There are a lot of moving parts here.”

The proposed ordinance would create a zoning “overlay” around TCU that would lower from five to three the number of unrelated adults who may live in a single-family house. It’s an attempt to curb what some call “stealth dormitories” in five-bedroom houses that typically rent to college students.

More than 300 properties would be affected by the proposed overlay. The proposal brought nearly 100 people to the zoning commission meeting.

Residents in the proposed overlay expressed concerns including loss of historic homes and the integrity of their neighborhoods; possible decline in their property values; the effect of the stealth dorms on their ability to sell their homes; and issues such as excessive noise from partying, trash in the yards and illegal parking on the streets.

One speaker was Gregg Cantrell, a TCU history professor who lives in the 2700 block of Sandage Avenue, which was placed this year on the Most Endangered Places of 2014 list compiled by Historic Fort Worth Inc., in part because of the buildup of five-bedroom houses on the street.

Cantrell said he knew he was moving into an area with students when he bought his midcentury modern home and “welcomed that.” But, he said, he is worried about what will happen to the properties and the neighborhoods if the university reaches its stated goal of 100 percent occupancy.

“We know what happens to speculative bubbles: They burst. And we can all predict what the result will be: Those properties that were built cheaply and quickly for student housing exclusively, they won’t be able to fill all the rooms,” Cantrell, a history professor at TCU, said.

“The properties will deteriorate and the people who live in those neighborhoods will pay the price.”

Investors and developers had their own list of worries about the proposed overlay, including the possibility that existing properties won’t be exempted. That would be an infringement on their property rights and cause an economic hardship for the owners, they said.

The ordinance presented to the zoning commission included options for exempting, or grandfathering, existing properties: If they are not occupied by more than three renters in a year; grandfathering expiring in 2029; and no grandfathering, which would require existing properties to come into compliance by June 2016.

Investor Chris Powers said not grandfathering would not only break trust in the development community but could force investors into foreclosure because of lost income and lost value.

“The precedent that was set here will travel throughout the development community that, ‘Hey, don’t go develop in Fort Worth, because as soon as they decide what they told you you could do, they don’t want you to do anymore, not only will they take it from you, they will take it from you after the fact,’ ” Powers said.

Alternative grandfathering proposals were offered, including one by Bryan Eppstein, who lives in the proposed overlay, who said investment properties built before Jan. 1, 2009, should have a “reasonable” grandfathering time, such as one year. Those built after Jan. 1, 2009, should have about five years to recoup investments, Eppstein proposed.

“We are not trying to have one group of citizens step on another, but if you have an absolute grandfathering clause, you are stepping on the most valuable investor constituency this city has — our homeowners,” Eppstein said.

“It is eroding, it is destroying our neighborhood.”

However, Powers and several other investors said five years would not be enough to recoup investments, especially since many of the properties have mortgages that must be paid off.

The city’s current zoning ordinance exempts existing structures from new rules until the property is not used for the grandfathered use for two years, at which point it must come into compliance with the new zoning.

“What I’m asking you today is to follow the current zoning ordinance that has been in place forever,” Powers said. “I’m not asking you to do anything crazy.”

Many investors also said the proposed overlay does not address the neighborhoods’ core concerns, saying that the issues of partying, noise, trash and illegal parking are all code compliance issues.

When making the motion to continue the case, Commissioner Gaye Reed told the audience to “keep in mind, we are land use. That is our concern, not enforcement.”

The overlay includes the single-family-zoned neighborhoods of Frisco Heights, University Place, Paschal, Bluebonnet Place, Bluebonnet Hills, Westcliff, Westcliff West, Colonial Hills, Tanglewood, University West, University Place, Park Hill, Park Hill Place and Berkeley Place. After Wednesday’s motion, the overlay was expanded to include portions of Overton Park.

Other issues brought up at the meeting included the definition of a fraternity in the ordinance, because official fraternities are not allowed in single-family zoning, and concerns that limiting the occupancy from five to three would force students to occupy more houses in the area.

“I’ve written down 14 things here that I had not even thought about before we came into this meeting. I occasionally do that, but I’ve never gotten to 14 before,” said commission Chairman Nick Genua.

This report includes information from the Star-Telegram archives.