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Diminutive domiciles by any other name

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By John Colson
Sopris Sun Staff Writer

In Carbondale they are called “micro-units” rather than their more common designation as “tiny houses,” and there are some key differences in how local governments view the growing national phenomenon of ultra-small houses, compared to the viewpoints of other jurisdictions.

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For example, in Carbondale if the tiny house is perched on wheels it can only be located in an RV Park. But if it is built on a permanent foundation and can be hooked up to the town’s water and sewer systems it can be located in a more traditional residential subdivision, according to Chief Planner Janet Buck.

Still, Buck said, the basic idea behind Carbondale’s tiny-house rules is the same as was recently endorsed by the Garfield Board of County Commissioners (BOCC). The BOCC, on March 20, approved an amendment to the county’s land-use codes to permit homes smaller than 20-feet by 20-feet, the former minimum house size allowed.

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That minimum, according to county planner David Pesnichak, was adopted in the 1970s “primarily to quell the proliferation of single-wide trailers in the county to help preserve home and property values.”

The BOCC’s rule change specifically was intended to allow for development of tiny houses in the unincorporated areas of Garfield County. Making discussion of the underlying idea just a bit more confusing than it was previously, though, the county refers to them as “efficiency housing.”

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According to a press release penned by the county’s communications office, the homes generally are “typically less than 500 square feet in size” and “have grown in popularity in recent years by people who seek a cheaper and simpler option” for their living spaces.

The county gives the average home size in the U.S. as about 2,600 square feet, and according to Pesnichak the average home contains more than 17,000 board-feet  of lumber and 16,000 square feet of “additional wood products,” and costs nearly $360,000 to build.

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A tiny house, however, typically uses up only 1,400 board feet of lumber and 1,275 square feet of other wood products, Pesnichak informed the BOCC, and a 200 square-foot tiny house “can cost as little as $35,000.”

He wrote in a memo to the board that the most common tiny houses range from 200 to 1,000 square feet in size, and Buck noted that “municipalities around the country are wrestling with how to deal with tiny homes.”

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The concept of “micro-units,” as it once was laid out in Carbondale’s land-use code, allowed for a minimum floor area of 400 square feet for a studio apartment in the high-density residential zoning category, according to Buck.

From there, the code used to permit a one-bedroom unit at 620 square feet; a two-bedroom at 750 square feet, a three-bedroom at 1,000 square feet and a four-bedroom at 1,250 square feet.

The recently-adopted Unified Development Code, however, does not contain minimum square-footage requirements for the overall units.

But a micro-unit must meet the town’s building-code requirements for certain minimum room sizes, in addition to the requirement for a permanent foundation and utility hookups.

And it can be either a freestanding home on its own lot, she said, or it can be an “accessory dwelling unit” that shares a lot with a larger home for the property owner.

In some circumstances, Buck said, an ADU can get its development permits administratively, rather than having to be placed on agendas for meetings of the planning and zoning commission and the board of trustees.

“I think the town has opened the door for tiny houses, as long as it’s on a foundation and meets the building code,” Buck said, though there have yet to be any applications for micro-unit construction permits.

She noted, however, that the county’s recent decision to allow efficiency houses does not have any effect on Carbondale’s codes or its plans to continue pursuing the use of micro-units in town.

Among other things, Buck said, the current growing popularity of tiny houses may have historic connections. She noted that proliferation of tiny houses would be somewhat similar to the predominance of small houses in mountain towns back in the late 1800s, such as the once-popular “kit houses” sold by the Sears mail-order catalogues and built in numerous towns around the Western Slope.

Published in The Sopris Sun on March 30, 2017. 
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