Thursday, February 22, 2024

Pending Countywide Zoning Legislation - NEST

CM Courtney Johnson
From Council Member Courtney Johnson, Feb. 22, 2024 -

Hello everyone!

There has been a lot of talk, turmoil, and angst around several pieces of legislation filed by newly elected Councilmembers Quin Evans-Segall and Rollin Horton.  They’re calling it “NEST”.  Many of these bills seek to amend Title 16 which relates to building codes etc.  Two, however, seek to amend Title 17 which is our zoning code which regulates land use in our county.  These are the two that have caused the most uproar and rightly so.  The full text of these two bills can be found here - BL2024-185 and BL2024-186 – and I will break them down for you.  This email is long, but this subject is very important and it's critical that people understand what is happening.

First let me start with explaining the purported goal of this legislation which is to increase density for the purpose of increasing affordability and adding a variety of housing stock.  I will not disagree that Nashville has an increasing affordability problem.  We need to be doing more and I think there is an opportunity and need for local, state and federal agencies to work together to create programs and incentives to increase the affordable housing stock as well as make home ownership more easily attainable.

 Zoning can be very complicated so I’m going to do my best to explain.  It’s important to know that CURRENTLY RS zoning of any kind means single-family (one dwelling unit) and R zoning of any kind means one and two family (one or two dwelling units).  To put this into perspective, there are 104,767 parcels that have RS zoning and these bills affect more than just RS.  This is, in effect, an attempt at a massive rezoning throughout the county by redefining the zoning codes themselves.

 BL2024-185 – Residential Scale Multi-Family Bill:

This bill adds “Residential Scale Multi-Family” which means “a single structure with two, three or four dwelling units that is situated on a single lot and designed in such a manner and scale to be compatible in neighborhoods that are predominately made up of single family and two family uses.”  In regular words, this means duplexes, triplexes and/or quadplexes.  This use would be added to the following zoning codes:  RS and RS-A districts: RS80, RS40, RS30, RS20, RS15, RS10, RS7.5, RS7.5A, RS5, RS5A, RS3.75 and RS3.75A as well as R and R-A districts: R-80, R-40, R-30, R-20, R-15, R-10, R-8, R-8A, R-6 and R-6A.

There are some design restrictions built into the bills which amount to the following:

  1. They are generally restricted to 2 stories in height unless there is an adjoining parcel with a 3-story residential structure, in which case the residential scale multi-family use can also be 3 stories.
  2. All units must be under a single roof structure with a minimum pitch of 30 degrees unless there are non-pitched (flat) roofs on three or more residential structures on the same block face.
  3. There must be one or two main entrances on the front fa├žade
  4. The dwelling units must share common walls – meaning all units must be within a single structure.

So what this means is basically all residential zoning districts would have the ability to have duplexes, triplexes or quadplexes depending on of the size of the parcel.

BL2024-186 – Redefining Single Family Zoning

As I stated before, RS zoning, regardless of the number beside it, means one dwelling unit.  This bill would add “two-family” to the RS and RS-A zoning districts.  So “one” would now mean “up to two”.  This new definition in this bill would only apply to those RS and RS-A zoning districts that lie within the USD.  The county is divided into USD and GSD.  The GSD is generally on the outskirts of the county.  All of District 26 lies within the USD and would be affected.  The shaded area on the below map identifies the USD for your review.  The only design restriction here is the minimum 30 degree roof pitch – unless there are three or more residential structures on the same block face with non-pitched roofs. 

With both of these bills, you may be asking yourself, what’s the deal with the roof pitch restriction?  In my opinion, this is a feeble and ineffective attempt to prevent, or at least have the appearance of preventing, HPR’s – better known as “tall and skinnies”.  Do not be fooled.  First, a flat roof is not indicative of an HPR in and of itself.  We see flat roofs a lot on HPRs or “tall and skinnies”, but that’s just a common design feature.  Nothing in this bill will or can prevent an HPR or “tall and skinny”.  HPRs are a property scheme to allow for multiple ownership of a property (like a condo) regulated by state law – not zoning or local regulation.  There is absolutely nothing we (metro) can do to prevent someone from placing an HPR on a property EXCEPT limiting the number of dwelling units allowed.  So, the fact is, that the only way to prevent tall and skinnies is with SINGLE family zoning which BL2024-186 effectively eliminates.

So, now that I’ve explained what the bills would do, I hope you can see how drastic of a change this would be in our zoning code and the effects they would have on our neighborhoods and city as a whole.

Again, I don’t disagree that Nashville, along with many other large cities, is experiencing an affordability problem.  No question about it.  But, simply increasing supply without being able to control demand will not manipulate the market price.  That’s simple economics. 

We know demand is high for housing here in Nashville and we anticipate that demand to continue to grow.  We have an incredibly strong economy fueled by several strong industries which is great for many reasons.  But it’s also the reason that despite all the cranes we see building apartments and condo high rises (which has increased the supply), we haven’t seen a meaningful decrease in rents or home sale prices.  Why?  Because the demand keeps up with, and still far exceeds, supply.  In the housing market, this is why we see developers purchase parcels for $300,000-500,000 (for example), knock down the one house and build two, three, sometimes four homes on the same lot with list prices for each much higher than the original purchase price.  There is nothing in this legislation that limits the size or price of this new housing stock or incentivizes it.  So, in reality, it won’t help make housing more affordable….just the opposite in my opinion.  I especially worry about our low income and diverse neighborhoods.  Those are typically already at a lower price point making those areas the most attractive for developers.  Could or would those areas be targeted first leaving existing renters in those homes with even less options?  With all of the gentrification and displacement we’ve seen in Nashville over the past decade especially, this is a very real concern for me.

Neither of these bills take in to account current infrastructure or its capacity. 

1. First, let’s talk about water and sewer capacity.  Every single time a new home or dwelling unit is built, it taps into a water supply and a sewer pipe.  Those pipes have a capacity limit that decreases with every tap.  At some point, it’s “tapped out” so to speak. 

2. Let’s talk about electricity.  We just went through a winter storm where TVA asked us all to reduce our power consumption for the purpose of avoiding rolling blackouts to allow the power grid to keep up.  That’s with the existing housing stock.  Think about that…. 

3. Let’s talk about stormwater.  The sponsor herself, CM Evans-Segall, mentioned recently the concern around flooding and stormwater throughout the county.  This is very real and our district and the surrounding area is painfully aware of it (think 2021 Flood).  So how does building more houses on single family parcels which reduces the amount of pervious surface area (allowing water to soak in) going to help flooding and stormwater?  It won’t.  The more impervious surface area, like housing footprints, concrete driveways, etc. – anything that prevents water from soaking in to the ground – will create more stress on our stormwater infrastructure.  At the very least, the impact of this should be analyzed. 

4. Let’s talk about the tree canopy.  More houses equal less trees.  Period.

I could go on, especially about the increased stress on city services we must provide that are already pushed to the max, but I think you get the point.  The simple truth is that our infrastructure simply cannot handle the countywide massive increase in density that these bills would allow.

What about property taxes?

While these bills to not change the tax rate, they could affect your value.  Your property tax liability is calculated by the rate (which is set every year in our operating budget) multiplied by a percentage of the value the assessor’s office determines.  If your value goes up, your bill goes up.  While assumptions can’t be made when determining value, no one can tell you that this won’t increase your property tax bill in the future.  But when you think about real life situations, it’s hard to think that a parcel that used to be limited to single family that would then be able to accommodate two family would not have more value to a developer which would increase the value.

So – What ARE we doing to address this affordability problem?

Roughly 10 years ago, after years of community input, studies, analysis, etc., we adopted what we call “NashvilleNext”.  I encourage you to read about it HERE.  To boil it down, it’s a guiding document created by and for Nashville that outlines policies and decisions needed to grow responsibly.  A unique feature of this document is that it is “living”, meaning we can amend it (and we have and will continue to) to adjust to the dynamic nature of our growth and needs. 

 In addition to this guiding document, we have various technical studies currently underway, including the Multi-modal Mobility Plan, Transit Oriented Development Study, Stormwater and Land Use Study, and Unified Housing Strategy, which will provide us with critical data regarding infrastructure readiness and housing needs.  Growth is inevitable, and increased density IS appropriate in many areas, but we must do it responsibly.  Our planning department is top notch and is actively working with local outside agencies to figure out the best way to move forward with the management of growth in a responsible way.  These efforts, again, are already underway and we expect to have those results sometime this fall.  Any effort to overhaul our zoning code or make widespread change should always come from, or at least be supported and guided by our planning department who’s sole job it is to shape public policy related to growth, preservation and development with a commitment to pro-active, community-based planning founded on public participation and to the building of livable, sustainable communities.  Thankfully, you are reading this and engaged.  But for every one of you reading this there are hundreds or thousands that aren’t, yet they will be affected with our without their knowledge much less their consent which goes against everything they and I stand for.

This proposed legislation is not responsible, thoughtful, or departmentally collaborative and, more importantly, it won’t be effective at addressing the problem that it seeks to correct - affordability.  In reality, this is nothing but a developer’s dream.  In my opinion, it’s not even something that can be amended to make effective or palatable. 

What if my area is ok with this increase in density?

As I said before, there are areas in the county where increased density is appropriate.  There is absolutely nothing preventing a district councilmember from working with his or her neighbors within their district to determine what is appropriate, needed and supported and then changing the zoning to reflect those supported needs.  Zoning matters are the right and responsibility of the district councilmember.  Why?  Because the folks in district elected that councilmember to represent them and they know their district better than anyone else on the council.  I would never go into anyone else’s district and try to rezone a parcel much less thousands. 

What’s next and what can we do? 

Let’s talk about process.  These bills were introduced on first reading on February 6, 2024.  These are three reading ordinances.  Usually, a zoning bill will pass on first reading, move to the Planning Commission where it will be either approved, approved with conditions, or disapproved.  From there it comes back to the council for second and third (final) reading.  If a zoning bill is disapproved by the Planning Commission, it increases the threshold of votes needed to pass from 21 to 27.  The sponsor moved to defer first reading to the April 2nd council meeting.  My desire was to defeat the deferral motion, force a vote, and kill both bills.  The vote for the deferral motion on BL2024-185 was 20 to 18 with 1 abstention in favor of the deferral.  Disappointing but close.  

The vote for the deferral motion on BL2024-186 was 19-19.  The tie went to Vice Mayor Angie Henderson who voted in favor of the deferral.  Again, disappointing.  I wasn’t interested in a deferral and I’m still not.  The only reasons for deferral would be to give time to get questions answered, or to craft amendments to make it better.  I don’t have any questions, and, in my opinion, these bills are not able to be amended to “make them better”.  They create a multitude of serious problems and solve nothing. I’ve heard that the sponsor, CM Evans-Segall, may try to defer these bills to January 2025.  Again, no.  This needs to end now.  

Most certainly, should these bills make it to the Planning Commission, they will be “disapproved” and I can guarantee they don’t have 27 votes to pass in the Council.  So that being the case, how long must we play along, waste resources, and continue the angst that this whole county is experiencing over this?  These bills need to be either voted down by the Council or withdrawn by the sponsor.  Many of you have reached out to ask what you can do to stop this.  You can email councilmembers@nashville.gov and ask them to vote against both of these bills, and vote against any deferral motion. And you can email the bills’ lead sponsor CM Evans-Segall at Quin.EvansSegall@nashville.gov and ask her to WITHDRAW BL2024-185 and BL2024-186.  Additionally, the current co-sponsors of these bills are CMs Rollin Horton, Ginny Welsch, Jacob Kupin, Sandra Sepulveda, Emily Benedict, Terry Vo and Jeff Preptit.  If you’d like to email them directly, the formula for our email addresses is firstname.lastname@nashville.gov

 All my best,

Courtney

Rod's Comment: I appreciate Council Member Johnson's thoughtful analysis of these bills.  I, however, am not persuaded by her arguments. I am not yet committed to being in favor of these proposed changes but am convinced that increased supply of housing will result in downward pressure on housing prices. Our current low-density development leads to urban sprawl. We can grow up and denser or we can grow out and gobble up the countryside converting rural lands and small towns into Nashville suburbs. Also, however, I understand the desire to maintain the character of one's neighborhood. 

For more on this topic, please read Why Conservatives Should Support Zoning Reform

A book that addresses in more detail the issue of zoning and how it leads to a shortage of affordable housing and urban sprawl, I suggest Arbitrary Lines

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