The Infill Issue

by Tim Bryson, from the Spring 2005 CHCA Newsletter Because DeKalb is about 80 percent built out, developers are increasingly turning to infill, the practice of building extra houses on larger lots or buying smaller homes, tearing them down and building bigger ones on the same lots. DeKalb County had eight tear downs in 2001, 20 in 3002, 152 in 2003 and 319 in 2004. At the current pace, there will be around 470 tear downs in DeKalb this year. Many are occurring in the Oak Grove neighborhood. Clairmont Heights experienced its first infill recently on North Superior where a large home was built on a small lot that used to provide the neighborhood with the amenity of many large trees and a creek. There are homes on the market with similar greenspace lots or older ranch homes, prime targets for infill. What does infill mean to a neighborhood? Although the county restricts height to 35 feet, the current ordinance allows measurement from the average grade of the earth where it touches the house to the average roof height between the very top and the eaves. So developers simply bring dirt to raise the grade - sometimes the equivalent of an entire story - and pitch the roof sharply. That is why the new homes can tower over their neighbors and apart from loss of privacy for adjoining homes, the street can take on a saw tooth appearance: “big house, little house, big house, little house”. In addition, the county ordinance specifies setbacks from adjoining properties but it does not regulate re-taining walls so developers can build those walls right at the properties edge, with weep holes that drain all the water from their artificially elevated lot directly onto those neighbors on the natural grade lower down. In any case, the county does not require the builder to submit a site plan ahead of time. The developer can violate the setbacks by whatever they think they can get away with and then simply apply for a variance on the setbacks once the home is built. The county grants the variance because it doesn’t want to force anyone to tear down a new home. The county also has a tree ordinance. Developers are able to skirt this issue by claiming “financial hardship” or clear-cutting the trees in the front leaving only the trees in back. The neighborhood suffers lose of curb appeal from tree lined street and greenspace. Why are they being built so big? Apart from consumer demand from more space and status, the industry needs to sell larger homes in order to grow. In 1970, the average new single family home was 1,400 square feet; today it is 2,300. If you adjust for inflation, houses of the same size and comparable features are the same price today as they were in the 1970s. That means the industry has to sell more product - not just more houses but more square footage. In the Atlanta area, new infill houses are often three times the new median size. They typically replace ranch-style houses, which range from 1,600 to 1,800 square feet. Ranches with proper insulation an so on can be very energy efficient with their smaller scale and normal ceilings heights. The new homes are the SUVs of residential real estate. The larger rooms and cathedral ceilings use a lot more energy. What about property values? In a community with an average sales price of $300,000, the new “mansions” can sell for upwards of $900,000. So everyone’s property values go up. This can be a good thing - if you intend to sell in the near future or if you wish to take out an equity loan on your home. In our neighborhood, the homeowners were fortunate or wise enough to have bought a home in an area so near both Decatur and the Clifton Corridor that property values continue to rise without infill construction. However, after a certain proportion of homes have been demolished and mansions built in their stead, the marketability of the remaining smaller homes can decline. And seniors or others living on a fixed or limited income who are not able or willing to cash out their asset with a reverse mortgage can be hard hit by sudden jumps in taxes and this can lead to a homogenizing of a neighborhood’s demographic profile as these people feel they have to move out. The CHCA board has taken a position that it wants redevelopment that preserves our neighborhood’s character while promoting predictability in its growth. We support the recommendations presented recently by the Infill Task Force appointed by the DeKalb CEO, Vernon Jones. The Task Force proposed to set a height limit of 32 feet for new houses in existing neighborhoods. The height would be measured from the highest peak on the roof to the lowest footing of thehouse that was demolished to prevent artificially built up grades. This still allows two story homes to be built. Trees at the front of the property over six inches in diameter will be protected. Retaining walls will be subject to height limits and setbacks so that drainage issues will not be simply be moves to neighbors lots. The county’s Legal Department created a new Overlay “model ordinance” to make it easier for neighborhoods that prefer to set specific architectural, height or structural guidelines to adapt for their unique situations. References Choices abound in Atlanta. Atlanta Journal & Constitution. June 5, 2005 Fitting into Intown: Incompatible infills anger neighborhoods. Atlanta Journal & Constitution. June 5, 2005 Leafmore residents try to put lid on new mansions with overlay district. The Story. June 16, 2005 The McMansion Next Door. Newsweek. October 22, 2003. Residents air concerns about DeKalb’s rapid infill development. The Story. June 16, 2005