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Bryan Avenue dispute: Progress or monster house?

Published September 1, 2012 9:57 pm

Zoning • City is still seeking solutions to new construction in old neighborhoods.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Is it simply a rebuild or is it a McMansion?

After a decade of wrestling with the contentious monster-house issue, the Salt Lake City Council still has work to do.

New construction compatibility in established neighborhoods is now focused on Bryan Avenue near 1500 East and 1500 South in the Wasatch Hollow community.

There, quaint 1950s-era houses line leafy streets to create what could be a postcard image. Small lots, by suburban standards, hark back to building of the time, characterized by single-story brick houses of 900 to 1,200 square feet of floor space.

But there's a palpable sense of unease on Bryan Avenue between 1500 East and 1600 East, where one homeowner is planning to tear down a house and replace it with a two-story structure with 4,800 square feet of floor space.

Tana Gaia said she is angry that the city is allowing her neighbor, Kelly Hughes, to build a large house next door at 1534 Bryan Ave.

"The city zoning laws pit neighbor against neighbor," she said, "because the city has been unable to restrict these monster homes."

Another longtime Bryan Avenue resident, Brett Newman, said she and her neighbors cherish their little area and have sought to keep its character intact.

"I understand they want more space," she said of the Hughes family. "But the size of their plan and the [design with] the garage in the front are not in the style of this neighborhood."

She hopes Hughes will modify the design so it fits better in the block.

The city already has given Hughes the go-ahead for demolition. A building permit has not yet been issued. But Orion Goff, the city's director of building services and code enforcement, said Hughes is within the zoning ordinance to build a 4,800-square-foot structure on his Bryan Avenue lot.

In that R-1-5000 zone, the footprint of a structure can cover 40 percent of the lot. Hughes owns 7,150 square feet, which would permit a footprint of 2,860 square feet (Hughes' is 2,400), according to Goff. The height limit in the zone is 28 feet, which easily allows for two levels above ground.

Hughes, who has lived on Bryan Avenue since 2005, had little idea that rebuilding his house would cause a firestorm on the street. He and his wife decided to rebuild after unsuccessfully searching for another house in the area that met their needs.

"I thought that people might not appreciate it," Hughes said of his rebuild plan. "But I didn't think it would be like this — let's kill him."

Hughes hired an architect familiar with Salt Lake City building ordinances, he said, to ensure his new house would be in compliance with municipal codes. The architect suggested moving the structure back on the lot a bit so it wouldn't be imposing, Hughes explained.

"Here we're doing everything within the law," he said, "and everybody is upset with us."

The flap seems to have caused bad feelings all the way around.

"We would be happy to leave," Hughes noted, if the neighbors want to buy his house and pay his architect and builder fees.

Several Bryan Avenue residents, who did not want to be identified, said they like Hughes and his family and don't want to make the neighborhood flare-up worse than it already is. But, like Gaia, they say the city's ordinances for new construction are not enough to protect the character of their neighborhood.

A citywide ordinance aimed at size restrictions passed in 2005 but, given the continued disputes over new construction in established neighborhoods, apparently didn't go far enough to halt construction of monster houses. The most notorious, at 675 E. Eighth Ave., which towers over 1,200-square-foot bungalows, led to a more restrictive ordinance for the Avenues area.

"The overlay zone for the Avenues seems to be working," Councilwoman Jill Remington Love said.

In 2006, the City Council attempted to create a "Wasatch Hollow Compatible In-Fill" ordinance that sought to further restrict large houses there, Love recalled. But it became so contentious the council shelved it.

"It's a tricky issue," Love said. "How far can a city go to restrict property rights?"

The solution to the city's monster-home conundrum, she added, may need to be found on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis.

On Tuesday, the City Council will consider neighborhood "character conservation districts," said Councilman Charlie Luke, whose district includes Bryan Avenue at 1500 East.

The agenda item comes up independently of the Bryan Avenue dispute. Under the "character conservation" proposal, residents could initiate such a district, Luke said. And the conservation areas could be smaller than typical overlay zones or historic districts.

"It should be a neighborhood deal," he said.

Such an ordinance is likely to take weeks to craft and would not apply to the Bryan Avenue dust-up. But Luke hopes that character conservation districts could go a long way toward mitigating neighborhood disputes surrounding new construction.

csmart@sltrib.com