The Eastside/Westside Neighborhoods Character Study is in its final stages. There are a few more community meetings to go before the project team present their results to the city council. For the most part, I agree with the changes that the team has come up with. They’ve found a way to allow growth in house sizes within a reasonable range while reining in the building of McMansions in our mostly “small house” community. Most remodels and new building in Old Town already fit within these new recommendations. But for the most part, those aren’t the houses that the Old Town community is in a tizzy about. The houses that won’t be able to be built any more are the gargantuan buildings that tower over the surrounding houses blocking out sunlight and reducing privacy. Although I hope to dive into the specifics of the recommended changes in later posts, what I’d really like to address first is the issue of property owner rights, because that’s at the heart of this entire debate.
The developers and a minority of residents in Old Town argue that property owners should be able to do whatever they want to do within the current rules which, they say, aren’t broken so why fix them. The property owner should have the right to build what they want on their own property. It’s a good argument and one that I mostly agree with. However, there comes a point where the exercise of my rights can infringe upon the rights of others. And that’s exactly the area that the character study is addressing.
When a developer comes in and builds a new house next to mine that reduces the amount of sun that falls upon my house, or puts a large second story back patio so that it’s looming over my back yard, then the property owner (or developer) is exercising his rights to the the point that mine have been violated. That’s why this character study was called for by the city council. The team gathered copious amounts of input from all sides. Their goal has been to allow the developer or home owner the ability to exercise their own rights, but to find that sweet spot where the exercise of those rights will have the least amount of negative impact upon the neighborhood.
Consider this analogy. Let’s say there’s a guy named Freddie who likes to dance. He particularly likes to put in his earphones, listen to his iPod, and do a rather wild and crazy dance with his eyes closed. I think that most people would agree that Freddie has every right to use earphones, shut his eyes, and dance. In fact, if every morning at 8 am Freddie went out to the middle of Old Town Plaza and did his crazy dance, he might even become an internet sensation and tourists would soon be stumbling out of their hotels in the early morning just to take in the crazy dancing guy of Fort Collins. But if Freddie decided that the best place to do his dance was in the middle of Old Town Plaza on a Friday afternoon when the place is packed full of people, and his earphone listening, eyes closed, crazy dancing meant he kept bumping into people right and left, suddenly the picture changes. People would probably ask Freddie to dance with his eyes open so he could see where he was going. Or if it was really too crowded to be dancing safely, they might ask him to go dance somewhere else. It’s not that what Freddie wants to do is something horrible or illegal. It’s not. The problem is the condition of the location that he picked to do his dancing in. It’s too crowded. It’s not an appropriate location for Freddie’s crazy dancing.
I have heard developers repeatedly state that people want houses with large vaulted ceilings. They use this as one of their key arguments against changes being made to the city building code. And there’s nothing wrong with people wanting or having large vaulted ceilings. But when you move into a neighborhood with medium to smaller sized houses and you put in a house next door that’s much higher, not only because you’ve added a second story, but because you really want that high vaulted ceiling, and the added height on the houses blocks the neighbors’ sun access and reduces their privacy, then you’re being Freddie in the middle of Old Town Plaza on a crowded Friday afternoon. There’s nothing wrong with a vaulted ceiling in a house that’s build in a place where vaulted ceilings don’t reduce the neighbors’ rights. Sometimes it can be done in Old Town and the house fits right in with the surrounding houses, just like sometimes Freddie can go to Old Town plaza and dance without bumping into anyone because the plaza is fairly empty. But when the house is so much taller than its neighbors because of the ceiling height, then the house really should be built somewhere else in Fort Collins where the height isn’t going to be a problem.
We already accept the fact that if you’re going to live in Old Town, you’re not going to be living on a horse property. We don’t even think twice about it. If you go online to search for horse properties, then you’re expecting to find something on the fringes of town. If you go online to search for a house in Old Town, you’re not expecting the listing to also say, “Wonderful opportunity to live close to downtown and keep your horses with you.” In fact, I know people that are moving out of Old Town next month specifically because they want to stop boarding their horses and move them to a property where they can all be together. We accept that living in Old Town comes with certain rules and restrictions based solely upon the location. The concept is not new to us. What’s new is that we’re looking at areas of infringement that haven’t been adequately addressed under the current rules and the change in these rules may negatively impact the ability of developers in Old Town to make as much money as they’ve been making.
There are people who have lived in Old Town for decades. They are property owners and have certain rights that they expect won’t be violated. In fact, having lived here for as long as they have, they’ve grown used to the fact that those rights are theirs to keep. But people who are new to the neighborhood or who are flipping or scraping and rebuilding a house specifically to make a profit on the house and not because they want to live in it and become an integral part of the neighborhood community, are waking the Old Town neighborhood up to the fact that some property rights, like solar access and privacy, among others, are not adequately protected under the current provisions.
The goal of the proposed new building codes in Old Town is not to stop Freddie from dancing. It’s to stop Freddie from dancing on other people’s toes.