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  • By Lisa Brody

New issues for city planning board, commission

The Birmingham city commission and planning board, at a joint workshop on Monday, October 15, shared thoughts on current issues and action items, including proceeding on changing zoning for residents ability to age in place; rooftop usage in the MX, or Rail, District; use of astro turf in residential rear yards; and walls, structures and grade changes in front yards.

The joint workshop, one of two they hold annually, was an informal session, with staff presentations followed by discussions, but no formal decisions or votes were taken. The meeting allowed a free discussion format between the planning board and city commissioners, with each member able to share their perspective and thoughts on problems, as well as potential solutions.

Planning director Jana Ecker presented the first item, aging in place, for both boards to consider, as a series of items the planning board could be directed to study as zoning ordinance changes to then present to the commission.

“This whole topic, we first addressed about 10 years ago, and at that time, our zoning ordinances did not allow for any (aging in place) uses anywhere, other than we changed some parking requirements,” Ecker said. “We didn't address aging in place if you want to stay in your home, in terms of mobility, the addition of ramps; people wanting to redesign their kitchens and baths to allow for wheelchairs; some want to add a first floor master – what do they do if they've already reached their setbacks.

“Is this something the city commission wants us to start looking at – to change zoning ordinances for our aging population?” she asked, noting it would primarily address single family residential, but could also be applicable to multimodal, as there are sidewalks everywhere, “and should there be benches to sit down on, along with other things?”

“Part of this is the larger topic of affordable housing, and the discussion on a nationwide scale,” planning board chair Scott Clein said. “If this moves forward, could we discuss it with affordable housing, because someone leaving their single family home (in Birmingham) cannot afford something that's at $700 a square foot.”

“I think it could be any kind of housing,” commissioner Carroll DeWeese said. “I think we should look at all of our zoning for aging in place, at the broader issue for the whole housing code for our population. We're going to have more and more aging in place.”

“This is probably a trend affecting many communities – are there any standards?” asked mayor Andy Harris.

“There aren't any standards, but there are many examples out there,” Ecker responded.

“One of the unintended consequences is what happens if the seniors change the house – and then when they sell the house, it's to someone younger? What do they do with the house,” asked commissioner Rackeline Hoff.

Commissioner Mark Nickita noted that, among a variety of suggestions, from converting garages to first floor spaces, that perhaps changing density requirements for certain neighborhoods or certain streets would work.

It was determined that aging in place was an issue to be examined further.

Ecker then explained that in Birmingham's downtown and Triangle District, “you can have a rooftop patio, fireplace, pool, patio, etc. But in the MX (Rail) District, when the ordinances were developed, it prohibited rooftop uses.”

She said several developments in the MX District have wanted to offer rooftop amenities, but have been prohibited.

“Should we consider changing it in the MX District so they have equal opportunity?” she asked.

“I'm a big fan of this, and we should have addressed this a while ago. It's a common amenity in a lot of buildings, and it's increasingly in a lot of cities,” Nickita said.

There was consensus to look at changing the ordinance to permit rooftop usage in the MX District.

Building official Bruce Johnson said there have been requests from people to install astro turf in their rear yards.

“We have always denied them,” Johnson said. “We've considered them an impervious surface, that rainwater wasn't able to filter through. But there have been improvements to filter systems, where they now circulate through to water plants and flowers. One kind, the softest, most realistic kind, holds up in residential use. It comes in lots of colors. The drainage system is pretty much determined by the installer.”

He explained that drainage systems can vary anywhere from flowing directly out to the drainage system to being reclaimed and reused, with 100 percent of the rainwater retained.

“It could outperform real lawns,” Johnson said. “There's a good argument for allowing it and not counting it as impervious space, if the color is realistic, it retains rainwater and its only in the rear open spaces.”

Commissioners and planning board members reacted in a variety of ways.

Mayor pro tem Patty Bordman was vehemently opposed. “The function of grass is it hosts insects, which are eaten by birds and amphibians,” she said. “If we eliminate grass, we are facing some very real environmental problems.”

“The key is it offers 100 percent utilization of rainwater,” DeWeese said. “You can get around chemicals and fumes from lawn motors.”

It was determined it was a viable option to study.

Johnson then showed photos of some homes which had changed the grade in their front yards and installed short walls. “This is a new topic, and it's done after the fact,” he said. “We're noticing builders and homeowners installing walls – not retaining walls – in their front yards, elevating their front walks.

“The ordinance says no accessory building or structure can be built on the ground in the front yard. The issue we're running into is it's not a property line fence, but decorative property line walls, often of concrete, about 3-feet high,” he said.

He said they often believe they're exempt.

“We're getting a lot of proposals and a lot of pushback. I think there should be some kind of regulation,” Johnson said.

“You're right. We need to be very clear as to what is permitted,” Nickita said. “We need to get in front of this. We need to define the limits.”

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