Two Houses, One Lot? Councilman Wants New Homes To Be More Like The Old Ones

One of many single lots in East Nashville containing two newly constructed single family homes. Though this is technically a duplex, each unit has more square footage than most of the older houses on the street. Each is currently for sale, listed at just under $400,000. Credit: WPLN / Mack Linebaugh

One of many single lots in East Nashville containing two newly constructed single family homes. Though this is technically a duplex, each unit has more square footage than most of the older houses on the street. Each is currently for sale, listed at just under $400,000. Credit: WPLN / Mack Linebaugh

Many Nashvillians are fed up with residential development that’s out of character with neighborhoods. Metro Council members are well aware of this. They’ve been getting an earful from residents upset over homes deemed unsuitable for communities. And complaints about “skinny duplexes,” which have been spreading across the city faster than kudzu, are steady. On Tuesday night, Metro Council will take up two measures aimed at these concerns.

The first is the introduction of a new overlay — a type of development regulation — that will place limits on things like a home’s mass, height and how far a home is set back from the road. It’s called a “contextual overlay,” and the thinking goes: a new development should fit seamlessly into its context. For example, a home can’t be too much taller than the average height of the two homes on either side of it. It doesn’t automatically apply to the whole city. Instead, residents have to apply to be considered for the overlay.

One of the most vocal skeptics of the contextual overlay is developer John Brittle, who calls it a one-size-fits-all approach. “My issue is landowner rights,” Brittle said. “This hurts homeowners, and it’s dangerous for homebuyers and realtors. People don’t want their neighbors telling them that they can’t add a second floor to their house, or they can’t add a master suite, family room out the back, because the neighbors’ houses happen to be small.”

Brittle adds: “You can’t talk to me about the word ‘contextual’ and tell me it doesn’t have anything to do with the people across the street. Contextual being one side of the street is b.s.”

But Councilman Anthony Davis, one of the sponsors, said that characterization is extreme. “There are certain areas where you shouldn’t do a contextual overlay, but it’s not a blanket thing,” Davis said. “But I think it will be used sparingly, I really do.”

Councilman Walter Hunt said his constituents have been requesting another tool through which development can be checked, and this is just that.

“Well, I can tell you this,” Hunt said. “I’m getting about ten emails an hour from residents who don’t like what’s going on in their neighborhood. Does that tell you anything?”

The second proposal, considered a companion to the proposed contextual overlay, will address skinny duplexes. Under current city law, two units on the same lot have to be connected by a shared space, often called a “umbilical cord.” This measure would do away with that requirement. It will also require the duplexes to be six feet apart. “It will finally get rid of those weird connectors,” Davis said.

He said some of the two-on-one duplexes have a 3-to-1 height-to-width ratio, creating some very slender and vertical homes. This ordinance will cap the height. Under the ordinance, a duplex can’t be more than 1 1/2 times taller than the width.

Councilman Walter Hunt said he hears concerns over the two-on-one-lot trend more than any other.

“Putting two skinnies together, two houses on one lot, two stories up in the air, and they can’t even see out of their windows, and they don’t like it.”

Both ordinances are scheduled for a third reading tonight.

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