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Published in the February 16, 2017, edition of the Lyons Recorder. 

COMMENTARY: What’s the future of affordable housing in Lyons?

Planning Commission discusses tiny homes as ADUs

by Amy Reinholds

In early December 2016, the Lyons Board of Trustees approved changes to town code to encourage accessory dwelling units (ADUs), also known as carriage houses or mother-in-law apartments.

Hoping to inspire homeowners in residential neighborhoods to build more smaller rental units at the lower end of the market, the board approved ordinance changes that allow even separate buildings to share the utilities with the main house. (Read more at https://lyonscoloradonews.wordpress.com/2016/12/09/trustees-change-lyons-town-ordinances-to-encourage-adus.) Although several homeowners have contacted Lyons Town Hall about the ADU process, no one has yet officially started the conditional use review process, which is required for ADUs in single-family residential zones.

On Monday, Feb. 13, the Planning and Community Development Commission (PCDC) and town planning staff returned to the topic of whether tiny homes could be added in to town code to be allowed as ADUs, something that the Mayor and the Board of Trustees sent back to the PCDC to come up with a recommendation. The research from planning staff, local fire officials, and commissioners is continuing. They have pulled in information from local business owners who manufacture and sell tiny homes on wheels (Simblissity), and operate a lodging business (WeeCasa).

The term “tiny homes,” does not refer to small cottages or structures that are stick-built and constructed on a residential property. Instead, it describes a trend that started in the early 2000s of small constructed homes that are on built on a trailer frame with axles and wheels, registered like recreation vehicles (RVs).

The PCDC commissioners said Monday that the main challenge is finding where these tiny homes on wheels fit with current standards that building inspectors, fire and safety, and insurance companies use. Many municipalities across the country are dealing with similar issues – how and why to treat these structures, similar to stick-built cottages, but on a trailer frame.

The PCDC and Town of Lyons planning staff Bob Joseph and Matt Manley defined the following issues:

  1. Tiny homes on wheels don’t fit with the U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) standards for manufactured housing (mobile homes), which are larger than 400 square feet, built in HUD-authorized assembly locations, and inspected for specific manufactured housing building codes.
  2. Tiny homes on wheels don’t fit with International Residential Code (IRC) that building inspectors for Town of Lyons and municipalities around the country use. The PCDC discussed that if the same sized-building that is built off-site and put on a trailer was instead built on the land, it would not be a problem, except for a few changes such as knock-out windows from bedroom lofts, and maybe exceptions for ladders and stairwells.
  3. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1192 Standard on Recreational Vehicles is what currently applies to any RV, which is how tiny homes on wheels are currently classified. But most municipalities and companies that inspect residential structures don’t allow people to live permanently in RVs. PCDC Commissioner Neil Sullivan said that even while the building quality is like a stick-built home, and a higher standard than campers, “the tiny home industry has jumped on the bandwagon of RVs because it’s a loophole.”
  4. The PCDC commissioners preferred an approach where tiny homes follow the more stringent IRC standards (mentioned in item 2), as if they were built on site, but with more research on how town code and inspection processes could change to allow them on residential lots in town. The commissioners and planning staff are looking at two scenarios – homes placed on foundations or left on wheels – and they want more input from the fire officials.

The discussion ended Monday night with next steps to determine what the Lyons Fire Protection District will find agreeable for standards of tiny home on wheels secured as ADUs on residential lots in town. They also will work with the company that performs building inspections for the Town of Lyons.

One reason the PCDC just got back to this topic is because of packed meeting agendas for other topics like reviewing the final drafts of the Lyons Primary Planning Area master plan (an addition to the Lyons Comprehensive Plan), which will guide town leaders on future decisions if landowners in the Primary Planning Area request to annex into the Town of Lyons. A public hearing on the master plan could be as early as March 13.

Also, the PCDC and town planning staff have been working on a request from the Board of Trustees to recommend appropriate limits for homeowners who want to rent out rooms or their houses as short-term vacation rentals. The PCDC held a workshop to hear input from homeowners who now rent out lodging in their homes, currently not allowed if in residential zones unless approved as a bed and breakfast through a conditional use review. The PCDC and staff expect to compile and discuss a summary of possibilities at their next workshop, Feb. 27. When official recommendations are ready, public hearings will be scheduled.

For a history of post-flood efforts for affordable housing in Lyons, you can read previous columns from both Lyons-area newspapers posted on my blog at lyonscoloradonews.wordpress.com. Check out town meetings for yourself: All meetings for the elected Lyons Board of Trustees and appointed town boards and commissions on the town calendar at www.townoflyons.com/calendar.aspx. All meetings are open to the public, and many include portions of the agenda for public comment.

The Town of Lyons lost a total of about 70 flood-destroyed homes to both the federal buyout programs (including one buy out of a mobile home park expected to close soon) and to the changed use of a second mobile home park property to an event venue (rezoned for commercial use). In March 2015, a proposal for subsidized, affordable Boulder County Housing Authority rentals and some Habitat for Humanity for-sale affordable homes (a total of 50-70 units) on five to seven acres of Bohn Park was voted down 614 to 498 by Town of Lyons voters in a special election. At the end of 2016, Habitat for Humanity of the St. Vrain Valley purchased six residential lots to build three permanently affordable duplexes.

This column is a weekly commentary in the Lyons Recorder. If you have any questions, comments, or complaints about this column, please contact me directly at areinholds @hotmail.com.