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Officials debate rules for garages

Slides of city homes flashed across the screen at Tuesday's City Commission work session on a sweeping reform of garage rules. The homes illustrated the proposed rules' "do's" and "don'ts."

"Stop," Commissioner Charlie Harper said abruptly, as a slide of a well-landscaped L-shaped house appeared on the screen. It was a "don't."

"You know what kind of houses we all live in?" Vice Mayor Harriet Crozier asked Peter Pensa, acting assistant community development director. "None of us are conforming."

At least Harper, Crozier and City Manager Steve Stanton said their homes might not conform with the guidelines recommended by city staff. One of those rules was that garages not project more than 10 feet in front of houses.

For years, commissioners made individual rulings on requests for mammoth garages and houses that sat cockeyed on properties. But they had few regulations that required structures to look good and match the neighborhood.

In February, they asked staff to research what was being done nationally to address issues such as garage sizes and garage conversions, house placement and house additions and parking.

Over the past few months, city staff studied regulations from seven other cities and compiled guidelines.

The goal, according to community development director Michael Staffopoulos: "Consistency within the neighborhoods, at the same time recognizing the rights of the property owners."

Tuesday's work session showed that it wasn't going to be easy.

Now, garages can be 25 percent of the residence area or less than 500 square feet, whichever is smaller. But, there's the potential to allow larger garages on larger lots. Some residents have built garages larger than 1,500 square feet.

The staff suggested that garages be 5 percent of the lot area or 1,000 square feet, whichever is smaller.

And for people who want to convert their garages into living spaces, the staff recommended consistent neighborhood architecture. So if residents are converting a garage into a room on a street where lots of homes have garages, they should leave the door intact and operable. But on a street where there are few garages, they should finish off the room as if the garage were never there.

But garage conversions bring up another issue. Where will residents park their cars?

Commissioner Gay Gentry said it was an eyesore to see six cars and two motorcycles parked "helter-skelter" in front of a neighbor's yard.

The regulations are necessary, she said. "At least, it seems like you're being fair or at least equally unfair to everyone. We want this to be an attractive community that attracts people to come and stay and invest their money."

But Commissioner Jean Halvorsen thought homeowners should have more freedom. "I don't think we should control any of that," she said.

Stanton said the "laissez-faire" attitude, allowing residents to do whatever they want, is dangerous. "It's a very cancerous thing to a neighborhood," he said.

The commission will discuss these issues again when all officials are present. Commissioners Pat Gerard and Pat Burke and Mayor Bob Jackson were not at the work session.

_ Lorri Helfand can be reached at 445-4155 or at