Neighborhood Stabilization Overlay District.

It may sound like just another boring zoning designation. But the mere mention of the proposed teardown ordinance strikes fear into the hearts of homebuilders and real estate agents specializing in the practice, while at the same time giving hope to homeowners who want to protect their neighborhoods from becoming zero-lot-line suburbs-in-the-city.

The proposal has wound its way through both the Zoning Ordinance Advisory Committee (ZOAC) and City Plan Commission. (ZOAC is an advisory body appointed by and responsible to the City Plan Commission, which governs changes to the development code.) It has generated much interest and controversy along the way – even prompting the ZOAC chairman and District 13 plan commissioner, real estate agent Carol Scott, to recuse herself from the debate because of complaints about her possible financial interest in its outcome.

But for all its controversy, the compromised version of the ordinance recommended by the City Plan Commission last month and now on its way to the City Council appears as if it would do little to slow down the proliferation of “McMansions” in Dallas.

The ordinance was born out of a public outcry for an end to the oversized houses springing up in many established neighborhoods of East and North Dallas. The Single Family Housing Task Force, a group of industry representatives and homeowners put together by the City Plan Commission, proposed the ordinance as a way to “preserve the existing character of single-family neighborhoods by imposing alternative yard, lot and space regulations to ensure that new construction is compatible with existing structures.”

It was designed to be easier to obtain and less restrictive than a Historic or Conservation District. Unlike a Conservation District, it is not intended to regulate architectural style or building materials, but instead will regulate the “bones” of a neighborhood through the scale and placement of homes on a lot. Additionally, it covers parameters such as garage placement, setbacks, and pavement coverage on the lot (see sidebar, page 19, for more detail on the NSO district’s parameters).

Janet Tharp is the city’s interim assistant director of long-range planning. She says the overlay was designed with both homeowners and homebuilders in mind.

“It’s a way for neighborhoods to exercise some control with the least amount of restrictions on new development,” Tharp says.

Yet the Plan Commission recommended that much of that “control” be taken out of the overlay ordinance.

In the original proposal, neighborhoods able to obtain a majority (50 percent plus 1) of homeowners to sign the overlay petition would have been given the authority to put restrictions on how high and how many stories new houses can be, as well as the floor-to-area ratio (or FAR), which determines the “footprint” and allowable mass of a structure.

In an 8-3 vote at the Aug. 11 Plan Commission meeting, these restrictions were removed from the proposal.

Commissioner Neil Emmons says the changes would “eviscerate” the ordinance if adopted by the City Council.

“I absolutely didn’t support the amendments,” he says.

Still, Emmons says it was better to pass the amended ordinance than for it to be sent to Council without a recommendation. If rejected by the Plan Commission, the overlay would need a super majority Council vote to pass instead of the standard eight votes.

Ironically, Chairman Bruce Wilke used the same argument to explain why he pushed to eliminate the part of the overlay that allows neighborhoods to limit the number of stories allowed on a given lot.

“I felt like it was about to be denied,” Wilke says. “Frankly, it’s a compromise.”

Ultimately, Emmons says he hopes the City Council ignores the recommended changes, and he feels confident they will.

“Number one, they’re accountable to voters. Number two, the ordinance will only apply to neighborhoods with a majority of homeowners who voted for it. I know that every one of the Council members are in favor of neighborhood self-determination.”

In addition to recommending a weakened overlay ordinance, some of the amendments would make the overlay much harder for neighborhoods to pass. The Plan Commission recommended that 75 percent of the neighborhood’s homeowners be required to sign the petition instead of the simple majority in the original proposal. Also, “neighborhood” as defined in the amended overlay ordinance applies to a minimum of 50 rooftops instead of the three-acre minimum proposed by ZOAC.

Katherine Seale of Preservation Dallas wonders what the point would be of passing the ordinance as recommended by the Plan Commission.

“If you’ve taken out the FAR, story and height limits, I don’t know that there would be a huge incentive to get something like that to pass, especially with 75 percent of homeowners to initiate a process just to maintain setbacks and garage locations.”

Wilke disagrees.

“It depends on the neighborhood and what the goal is. For some, it’s setbacks; for others, it’s driveways.

Preston Hollow East resident Carl Crites wanted the stabilization overlay to include height, story and space restrictions. He says in a two-block area in his neighborhood, six of the 24 houses have been scraped to the foundation to make way for “McMansions.”

“Our feeling is this is a fairly modest proposal because it doesn’t do away with teardowns. What it does is preclude those builders from building right up to the lot line and building monster houses that put you in a hole.”

The Preston Hollow East neighborhood is in the process of applying for Conservation District status to regulate the setbacks and size of new houses being built, not architectural standards – exactly the scenario for which the Neighborhood Stabilization Overlay was designed. But the overlay is not only less restrictive, it is easier to initiate. The City Council may only approve two Conservation Districts annually; if an application is fifth in line, it could be three years before it goes into effect. By then, the damage to the neighborhood already could have been significantly changed.

Still, area Realtors and builders who specialize in residential teardowns see the measure as a threat to their livelihood.

Paul Urrutia, director of government affairs for MetroTex Association of Realtors, takes exception to the proposed Prevailing Standards Overlay that governs new development until the standards for the Stabilization Overlay are set. Neighborhoods would have six months to finalize an overlay with an option for a six-month extension.

“That’s potentially a 12-month period of limbo for sellers and developers. In any type of business deal, 12 days is a long time, much less 12 months. There needs to be compromise on both sides of issue. I think people want homes that keep the character of the neighborhood. In the details is where our concerns lie.”

Also, Urrutia cites upward pressure on property tax rates if the ordinance is passed.

“Dallas is in a budget crunch. We should not prohibit or slow down growth. The city is going to need the increase in tax revenue this new development will bring. If property-tax revenue is not what is anticipated, the city could adjust the property-tax rate. Then people citywide will be affected, and the burden will fall on homeowners.”

Now it’s up to the City Council to decide if the overlay will actually deal with the problem that initiated its creation – the proliferation of zero-lot-line teardowns.

The City Council will likely consider the Neighborhood Stabilization Overlay at its Sept. 14 meeting at the earliest.