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County weighs requests for smaller home lot sizes

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NASHVILLE — County commissioners spent Monday afternoon grappling with how best to respond to the growing pressure of residential development by Wake County into southern Nash County.

Developers’ desire for smaller lot sizes in areas intended for suburban growth is clashing in rural areas where larger lots have been envisioned in the county’s land use plan.

The purely rural A-1 agricultural zone now has a minimum lot size of 43,500 square feet and the related rural residential zone is R-40 with a minimum lot size of 40,000 square feet.

But county planner Adam Tyson and board Chairman Robbie Davis said they have seen an increasing number of developers wanting lots half that size, zoned R-20 for lots at least 20,000 square feet.

The issue came to a head in July when commissioners deferred for 90 days a request by Cecil Williams of Elm City to rezone a 25-acre agricultural tract in the Green Pond area near Bailey from R-40 to R-20. Williams wants to build 50 homes of 2,000 square feet valued at $200,000 and related infrastructure, and he said he needs to develop the homes on half-acre lots “to make the numbers work.”

His request was actually a cut-down version of a much larger request in May to rezone 188 acres in the same area from R-40 to R-20 conditional use to develop a massive subdivision of half-acre lots. That request was withdrawn over a zoning technicality.

Williams has acknowledged he would like eventually to develop the full 188 acres, but that prospect and even the smaller current request has drawn fierce opposition from residents in the area, who say the large number of homes will destroy the area’s rural character.

This clash of suburban versus low-density rural growth prompted commissioners to call a time-out and review the land use plan so they can give the county staff some guidance on how to control future growth.

“We’re seeing the beginning of the spread of Wake County into the southern part of Nash County,” Davis said. “I think this is a big decision for the Board of Commissioners.”

Davis said he thought the land use plan “is not in bad shape at all” but does need some tweaking because “we’ve got to do everything we can to generate new growth and prospects.”

Lenny Breedlove, chairman of the county’s planning board, acknowledged he wasn’t comfortable with small lots, but conceded that R-40 lots are “not cost-effective. Developer costs have gone through the roof. If you restrict your zoning too much, you’re going to kill your growth.”

“If you want growth,” he said, “You’ve got to be flexible.”

Commissioner Fred Belfield said he “doesn’t like the R-20 at all,” and Commissioner Dan Cone said that any zoning smaller than R-40 should require both water lines and sewer system, not just one or the other as the ordinance allows now.

Tyson said the county could consider a compromise approval of R-30 without changing the ordinance, but he stressed “There’s not a right or wrong answer. These are choices by elected officials.”

“There’s a fine line,” Davis said. “To make it work, developers are needing smaller lots.”

Adding to the board’s discomfort was the county’s policy of “cluster development,” to which several commissioners have expressed opposition at one time or another.

A cluster development allows a developer to build homes on lot sizes smaller than the designated zone, say R-30 lots in a R-40 zone, provided that the difference in land be set aside for public or common use. This allows a developer to make better use of property that might have some unusable areas, but it can also result in very small lots if the approved zone is not that large.

Both Cone and Breedlove said they disagree with cluster development that resulted in lots smaller than R-20.

As commissioners discussed the issues, they decided informally to ask Tyson and the planning board to come back with some specific recommendations: to disallow cluster development in zones smaller than R-30, which means the smallest lots would be R-20; to drop the minimum lot size in the A-1 zone from 43,500 to 40,000 square feet; and to consider changing more rural growth zones on the land use map to suburban growth.

The board wants Tyson to bring back his recommendations so the board can hold a public hearing and make a decision before Williams’ project comes back up for a decision.