City Council on Thursday unanimously approved a zoning change that will allow a couple who restored a large historic home on the Eastside to construct a two-car garage that will feature three apartment units in their backyard. By working with Councilman William “Cruz” Shaw (D2), the applicants and most of their opponents were able to compromise on a “conditional use” zoning change.
Only one citizen out of 10 spoke against the project Thursday. Two of the 10 speakers were property owners Lauren and Chris Mongeon. Council meetings take place during normal work hours which may affect citizen turnout. Of the 25 responses the City received from the property’s neighbors, 14 were in favor and 11 were opposed.
“It’s slightly anticlimactic with all the opposition that’s been there before,” said Chris Mongeon, who with his wife Lauren owns the property in question, located at 1115 Nolan St. “But it’s nice.”
Opposition to the project, which the Mongeons have said may host short-term rental guests through online platforms like Airbnb, crescendoed in May when Eastside residents spent hours at several community meetings debating whether the apartments should be allowed in a historic, largely single-family neighborhood. Much of the conversation also focused on letting the so-called “commercial use” of short-term rentals “encroach” on the neighborhood. There are already several properties in Dignowity Hill that use such platforms, and a separate task force is currently discussing how the City should move forward on short-term rental policies.
Zoning issues “are not always black and white,” Shaw said. “Sometimes it’s gray … this case’s compromise falls into the gray area.”
The Mongeons originally asked for a permanent zoning change that would allow for four dwelling units on their comparably large lot in the Dignowity Hill Historic District. On Thursday, they amended their request to ask for a “conditional use” zoning that is tied to their specific project. The former designation applies to many condo and duplex developments, so if for some reason the home was demolished, the lot would be zoned for up to four dwelling units. The latter restricts those dwelling units to be built in the way described in the Mongeons’ plan.
“It’s all subject to a site plan,” Robert Killen, a land use attorney the Mongeons hired to represent them through the process, told the Rivard Report after the vote. “RM-4 [the original request] would allow us to tear down the existing house and put up a row of townhomes. Now [the Mongeons] are tied to the plan that we’ve submitted. So there is protection for the neighbors long-term and protection for the property owner. It’s a win-win … it provides long-term certainty.”
Liz Franklin, a member of the Dignowity Hill Neighborhood Association who was initially opposed to the project, was satisfied with the compromise.
“Conditional use was always on the table,” Franklin noted. “This gives us an opportunity to say everybody got something.”
Neighbor Cullen Jones was the lone opposing voice at the meeting.
The project will “covertly transform a residential neighborhood into a commercial development,” he told Council. “[We need to] protect that sanctity and quality of single-family areas.”
But the property is still not zoned for commercial use, Killen said. “These are residences. They will all be residences.”
Shaw and his staff were essential in bringing both sides to the compromise, Mongeon, Killen, and Franklin agreed.
“Previous to this point in the process, there was not sufficient leadership present to really negotiate a compromise between all the concerned parties,” Mongeon said. “Having Councilman Shaw present to lead the discussions and the eventual compromise … has been instrumental and vital to the outcome.”
The project will still need approval from the Historic and Design Review Commission before it can be built.
“If we wanted to live in subdivisions where an HOA tells you what color to paint your door, we would have bought houses over there,” said neighbor Natasha Bakunda, who advocated for property rights in her testimony to Council. “We’re living in Dignowity Hill because we like the ability to keep it historic and make it a little crazy and whacky and have fun with it. [Chris] shouldn’t have to jump through all those hoops.”