Skirting The Zoning Laws

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"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."

OK, maybe you are wondering, "What does he mean, 'appear to be four stories'?"

Yeah. Let's all take up a post here out in front of 6159 Oram, home of the dirt skirts, and do this thing together. Now let's all extend our index fingers and count. Right down there, you have the Earth, the great mothership of our species. Terra firma. Ah, don't we all know and love her. Yes, indeed. The ground is sort of where everything begins.

Now, counting up from there, we see one story. Two stories. Three stories. And, indeed, as Sandburg predicted, we see what appears to be four stories. In fact, unless everybody has just totally taken leave of his senses and we're all living in one big wiggy ward now, it doesn't just appear to be a fourth story. It is a fourth story!

It's a real, live fourth story, in a neighborhood where the law only allows three stories, so as not to blot out the sun from the adjacent residential properties.

I spoke briefly with Sandburg on the phone last week. All too briefly. He wanted me to talk to another city official, David Cossum, whom I did call several times, without response, alas. But this is what I would like to have asked both of them, had either of them been willing to chat:

Lads, what were ye thinkin'? The guy comes in with a drawing of a very tall planter box in front of his building and tells you that the planter box is the ground. The Earth. Our planet. The mother of us all. You surely know the Earth is not a planter box.

You could have told him several things. Nice try. Get outta here. Get a life. What do I look like, a doughnut? But you shouldn't have told him he was right. And you shouldn't have told Jon Estes, the neighbor, that it was all totally legal and that he was only imagining that he saw a fourth floor up there.

I rode around Oak Lawn last week with Neal Emmons, a citizen appointee to the City Plan Commission, who was showing me examples of other larger projects where dirt skirts have been used to get around height restrictions. I asked him what he thought city staff should have told Estes when he came to them looking for protection from a blot-out-the-sun construction project in his backyard.

"They should have said, 'Of course we will protect you, because that is part of the covenant when you pay your taxes,'" Emmons said. "Cities that keep their end of the bargain and protect their citizens have quality of life."

I agree. It would be nice for city staff not to be such total lie-downs for every single person who comes knocking on their door. Every once in a while an ounce of spine would be a nice surprise.

That said, height and density are tough issues. I spoke to Paul Cauduro, director of government relations for the Home Builders Association of Greater Dallas, who pointed out that Dallas recently enacted a citywide plan called "Forward Dallas" calling for greater inner-city densities and walkable neighborhoods. He said that means builders have to be able to get more sellable floor space on the ground.

"If the city of Dallas won't allow this kind of stuff, then Forward Dallas will never go forward," he said.

And I don't really blame Nelson, the developer, for trying a Hail Mary. He told me he used to build neat little houses in East Dallas back when a lot cost him $20,000. Now that he has to pay $200,000 for the same lot, he has to find a way to get a lot more structure on that lot in order to make his numbers come out right side up.

In the weeks ahead, all of this is going to the city council, where the council is going to straighten everything out—a prospect that all parties, no matter what their position or interest, should find thoroughly terrifying.

We would have avoided all of this if the folks down at the building inspection office had just looked at these plans and done what they knew in their hearts they needed to do. Giggle like blushing choir girls and wave goodbye.

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze