The Tiny House Craze: Zoning Laws Could Be a Tiny Impediment

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The “tiny house” movement is all the rage right now. The cause of the craze may be many faceted. Whether the popularity and demand is being driven by a shift in peoples’ preference to downsize to a more simplified lifestyle (remember Henry David Thoreau’s advice to “…simplify, simplify”) or whether it is driven by economic factors and the need for more affordable housing, the “tiny house” is becoming more popular and common.

So how will local governments deal with the demand for “tiny houses”? Many, if not most, zoning laws and building codes do not currently contemplate or allow for a “tiny house.” Before the “tiny house” could become a viable housing option, therefore, particularly in incorporated towns and municipalities, the zoning regulations and building codes would need to be reviewed and, in many instances, amended to allow for the “tiny house” as an additional housing option.

Issues that towns and municipalities would need to consider in amending existing zoning regulations would include the compatibility of “tiny houses” with the existing residential zoning districts and surrounding zoning districts. Existing codes and regulations would need to be reviewed for factors such as the required minimum lot size, building density, (the maximum number of dwelling units per acre or per lot), building setbacks and building restriction lines, and a host of other design and development factors.

In addition to zoning and subdivision regulations and building codes, many jurisdictions have also adopted “adequate public facilities ordinances” (“APFO”) which require that adequate public facilities are in place to support new development before the new development is approved and constructed. Public facilities to be considered under an APFO usually include a development’s impact on roads, schools, parks, and other municipal services and facilities, and require the developer either to provide the facilities or pay fees for the resulting impact on existing facilities or new facilities. Jurisdictions will now need to consider how a “tiny house” house impacts those public facilities.

Many “tiny house” owners focus on sustainability and environmental factors so that the houses are self-sustaining, with features such as solar energy and composting toilets. Those features may not fit in with the APFO and other code requirements of a more urban landscape and municipal zoning regulations, which often require that residential units are served by public facilities, such as public water and sewer services.

Many jurisdictions have also adopted and implemented “impact fees” which are charged to the developer to pay the cost of the “impact” of any new development.  Often impact fees vary depending on the type of residential unit or structure. So jurisdictions would need to consider where a “tiny house” would fit into the impact fee scale based on the anticipated impact of a “tiny house” on those public facilities and services. Will the typical “tiny house” have an impact on existing roads, schools, and other facilities, and to what degree?

So once the proverbial “door” to the “tiny house” is “opened” it raises a lot of questions for planners and elected officials to ponder and resolve before the “tiny house” craze comes to their community. 

Opinions and conclusions in this post are solely those of the author unless otherwise indicated. The information contained in this blog is general in nature and is not offered and cannot be considered as legal advice for any particular situation. Accessing this blog and reading its content does not create an attorney-client relationship with the author or with Miles & Stockbridge. Any federal tax advice provided in this communication is not intended or written by the author to be used, and cannot be used by the recipient, for the purpose of avoiding penalties which may be imposed on the recipient by the IRS. Please contact the author if you would like to receive written advice in a format which complies with IRS rules and may be relied upon to avoid penalties.

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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