Skirting The Zoning Laws

At City Hall, common sense goes down for a dirt nap

Dirt skirts. Understand dirt skirts, and you understand the Earth.

Some weeks ago I received e-mails from an esteemed neighbor warning me of an important City Hall issue having to do with "dirt skirts." I wrongly assumed we were talking about our perennial East Dallas problem with prostitutes.

Dirt skirts, as it turns out, are a very inventive way to abuse the city's building and zoning codes. Dirt skirts, in fact, are so crazy, so Rube Goldberg wild and wacky, so over-the-top, that I confess to harboring a certain grudging admiration as I might for someone who had invented a way to get over turnstiles on stilts or a person who had figured out how to defeat airport security by disguising himself as Barbara Bush.

The box at the lower right-hand corner with dirt piled in it is the "dirt skirt."
The box at the lower right-hand corner with dirt piled in it is the "dirt skirt."

You just gotta hand it to them.

A dirt skirt is a mound of dirt that you pile up next to a new building in order to say that the ground is higher than it really is. Why? Well...do you really have to know all that? All right, I'll do my best.

According to the law, you can't build a building taller than 36 feet high in certain areas. When you allow for the roof and foundation and everything, that winds up being a three-story building. But, aha! It can only be 36 feet high from what?

Perhaps you are thinking, "High from the ground, Sherlock." Sure. It's not high from marijuana.

But, aha! Who says where the ground is? Perhaps you are thinking, "Go see a doctor, moron. Everybody knows where the ground is." Sure. It's...the ground.

But, aha! What if you built a thing kind of like a planter box out in front of one wall of the first floor of your building and filled it up with dirt two-thirds of the way up the wall and then you said, "Hey, look! The ground is up here now! So if you measure from the top of the planter box, I still have room in my 36 feet for a fourth floor."

Perhaps you are thinking, "Then you really are an idiot, because no city official would ever fall for something that stupid."

You know what's interesting? That's exactly what the guy who did it thought. Tom Nelson, the developer whose dirt skirt castle on Oram Street in East Dallas is at the center of this controversy, told me he thought it was a stupid idea too, when he first stumbled on it.

"I was like, 'How in the hell can that pass?' I'm like everybody else."

But Nelson had seen large multifamily buildings in Oak Lawn where developers appeared to have used dirt skirts to defeat height limits, allowing them to build entire fourth stories that would otherwise be illegal.

"I hired an architect," Nelson told me, "and he goes, 'Well, now, I'll go check it out.' And he checked it out. Went through [city of Dallas] plan review. He said, 'Well, this is what you have to do. This is how you do it. And lo and behold, it worked."

Let me run this down for you again so far. Nelson wants to build a multifamily building on Oram, where legally he can only go up three stories from the ground. His architect goes out to the building inspection department on Jefferson Avenue in Oak Cliff with plans for a four-story building that has a planter box-type thing out front full of dirt.

The architect argues that the four-story building is still only 36 feet high if you measure from the top of the planter box. Even Nelson, the developer, who has been building houses and apartment buildings in Dallas for more than 30 years, thinks it won't fly.

You and I agree. We assume the building inspection person will roll up the plans in a tube and start thwacking the architect on the snout with it in a Three Stooges routine. But, no! It passes! And now the building is under construction.

Enter, stage right, Jon Estes, who occupies a one-story single-family house with his wife and two small children just across the alley from Dirt Skirt Manor. Estes told me he was looking at the construction site one day with his visiting father, who has construction experience, and his father asked how high the building was going to go.

"I said it could only go up three stories," Estes told me. "And he said, 'I don't know, but that looks like an awful lot of structure going in there for a three-story building.'"

Maybe it was the commercial elevator that helped give it away. Or all the steel. Or all the extra fire escapes. You don't see all that stuff in your typical three-story multifamily building on what used to be a single-family lot.

Estes contacted his city council member, Angela Hunt, whose staff went to the building inspection department and asked what was what. In response, Hunt's staff received an e-mail from Leif Sandburg, the chief of building inspection, who had the following to say (and I quote in part):

"Specifically, some builders are re-grading their projects by adding 8 to 10 feet of dirt at each of the four corners of their structure, effectively allowing them to build an additional story. Coupled with the 36 feet in height already allowed by MF-2(A) zoning, the resulting height (what can appear to be four stories) of the new project can appear to be out of scale with adjacent one- and two-story single-family structures."

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