Fencing ordinance is tweaked; Planning Board takes on habitable basements

Highlands takes its zoning seriously, but nothing is set in stone and change is always in the air. At the February Planning Board meeting, members put the finishing touches on the Fence regulating portion of the Unified Development Ordinance which the group has been working on for about three months. In addition, they began discussing allowing habitable spaces in daylight basements in the commercial district.

Some years ago, when tall, solid, wood fences were erected in the setbacks next to travel-ways on US 64 east and west, a fence ordinance was quickly passed to regulate the look and scale especially along the inroads to Highlands.

Now that ordinance is being amended to further clarify allowable residential fences.

The Planning Board worked the ordinance over a few times and then it was sent to the Land Use Committee made up of Commissioners John Dotson, Eric Pierson and Donnie Calloway who added their two cents.

Two Mondays ago, the fence ordinance amendments were tweaked again presumably for the last time.

So, fences or walls are permitted along the side and rear property lines and behind the building setback line from a road right of way or road center line. However, they can’t be over six feet high; they can only be constructed of wood, coated chain link, ornamental iron, aluminum, brick or stone; the exposed framing side must face the interior of the property; and if wood, may be left natural but the stained or painted color should come from the town’s approved color chart so to blend in  with the environment.

Though fences or walls are discouraged within a building’s front setback line, if built, they can’t be higher than five feet, can be no closer than 12 feet from the edge of the pavement or built in the right-of-way; and allowable building materials are the same as above. In addition, they can’t block the required sight triangle at intersections; exposed framing must face the interior and in front and along roadways fencing of all kinds must have a vegetative screen. As above, the color may be selected from the town’s chart.

In all cases, a permit is required before any fence construction begins.

Town Manager Josh Ward will bring the final version to the Planning Board in March before it goes through the official amendment process.

Habitable Basements

Summit Architect Jeff Weller was on hand to discuss the benefits of allowing a basement to be habitable – because people have been doing it anyway so it might as well be allowed, he said.

“This isn’t about a specific project, but there has been inconsistency over the years – regarding what was approved and what wasn’t, what was built and what wasn’t. People come to the board and lie and then put something habitable in the lower level so now there are three habitable levels, which is technically not allowed if one of those levels is a basement. I just want to be able to come and get a project approved and be honest when it makes sense for the site,” he said.

He said over the last three and four years, there are commercial projects that have been built in the B1, B2, and B3 districts that have habitable basements.

In addition to what Weller noted, there are several reasons to amend the ordinance. Recently, the town amended the ordinance to allow attics in the commercial district to be habitable, so why not a day-light basement? The slope of the land in Highlands lends itself to daylight basements and if it’s allowed in the residential district, why not the commercial district?

“The idea is to make the ordinance consistent,” said Town Manager Ward.

Planning Board Chairman Thomas Craig believes both attics and basements should be habitable.

“The character of the business district buildings are defined by their height, design, color, built-upon area and parking requirements; all of which are controlled by our ordinance,” said Craig. “As such, the use of attics or basements as habitable spaces are not detrimental to downtown as long as they comply with the ordinance and the use is consistent with the current zoning district.”

In fact, he said he would like to see two habitable floors exclusive of attics and basements allowed.

“If you can use both the attic and the basement and you meet all other requirements, then go for it. Especially, if there is no undue burden on anyone because of what you are doing in that basement whether it’s storage, mechanical, a hotel room, office, or parking,” he said.

But Town Manager Ward said the Land Use Committee has concerns and Dotson was there to explain.

“You can create your own problem or create your own future if you excavate it right. The folks that built Wright Square excavated the ‘Pit’ and sold the dirt. So, we don’t want someone excavating saying they want to create parking or something else and then 10 years from now turn it into something else – coming back to repurpose it,” he said. “That’s what we’ve got going on behind Wright Square. It’s a problem that was created by the developer which now the town needs to cure to make work.”

But Weller said allowing habitable space in a day-light basement is better than building a huge foundation wall.

“It puts the overall building on a more personable scale rather than just a concrete warehouse-looking foundation wall. The intent is also to make use of sloping property where some portion of a basement will be underground. All the easy properties have been built on,” said Weller.

Craig agreed saying this sort of amendment to the ordinance would keep the downtown vibrant which is a benefit.

“This would be a minor change just like the marathon discussion we had over attics. We allow attics now and it hasn’t been detrimental to the town and people can have a habitable space in their attic which is perfectly legal,” he said.

Member Glenda Bell said she couldn’t see any reason not to amend the ordinance to allow a habitable space in a basement just like in an attic.

Ward said the Land Use Committee is worried multiple basements could be built and that might be a problem. He wants to make sure that isn’t an issue before returning to the March Planning Board meeting with a proposed amendment.

– Kim Lewicki, Highlands Newspaper

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