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Planning commission sweeps out basement requirement

Doug VanderLaan

Contributing Writer

A proposed change in Hastings' housing code would no longer require full basements for all dwellings the city planning commission decided Monday with an 8-1 vote.

Planning commissioners scrutinized wording and composed what the majority viewed as a workable solution to an issue that has been an ongoing source of debate. Despite the careful crafting, though, Commissioner Tom Maurer voted against the change.

The revision, which now moves to the Hastings City Council for final approval, will allow for “slab construction.”

From a Realtor's perspective, the change would allow for more economical construction.

“I don’t think you can build 1,200-square-feet on a lot with a full basement for less than $200,000,” said Realtor Mark Hewitt of Miller Real Estate during a public hearing prior to the planning commission’s action. “With a slab [instead of a full basement] maybe you could get that cost into the $150,000 range and you can fill a lot.”

Hewitt cited the many empty lots within the city as areas his firm would like to target for development, suggesting that lack of housing on them is likely due to prohibitive construction costs.

Hewitt was one of only two citizens – both Realtors – who chose to address the issue during the public hearing. Jan Hawthorne of Jaqua Realtors mentioned two clients awaiting zoning clearance to construct traditional “stick-built” homes on a slab foundation. Because one client is retired and no longer requires the added space of a full basement, Hawthorne suggested that slab construction may even be an attractive housing feature for a maturing population.

 “I think it’s a great idea,” said Hawthorne of slab construction. “I’d like to see ‘stick-built homes’ included in the ordinance to clarify, it needs a specific inclusion.”

According to Community Development Director Dan King, Hastings is one of few municipalities to require full-basement construction which, on planning commission direction, led to his request that consultant Rebecca Harvey of Kalamazoo-based McKenna Associates draw up a sample revision. Though acceptable in its intent, the submitted draft kicked off some red-pen editing, especially in its use of the word “walls.”

 “I have a little difficulty in how (the proposed revision) treats ‘walls,’” Maurer said, pointing to wording requiring proposed new home construction to have “walls of which shall have the same perimeter dimensions as the dwelling.”

Citing construction on a slab, Maurer suggested the wording of the proposed zoning amendment was confusing and could assume “walls of a foundation that does not have any walls.”

Maurer added the term also does not clarify the word’s meaning, suggesting that new construction could use “monolith walls, frost walls, or full basement walls. ‘Walls’ falls into ‘foundation.’ Walls of a foundation would automatically mean walls.”

Harvey conceded Maurer’s point, but also suggested that the operative word in the revision was ‘perimeter.’

 “It’s still a perimeter, it could have walls,” said Harvey, explaining that the revision wording is common phrasing used in zoning requirements in many other communities. “When you have a home setting on a slab, you’re saying everything has to be the same size. I can see ‘dwelling’ not meaning ‘walls.’ It doesn’t’ have to negate or confuse.”

Suggesting that changes could easily be made to the presented draft, Harvey added that, “It’s important that the city be as clear as possible.”

Before agreeing on final wording, subsequent discussion arose over how slab construction approval might affect types of housing and where it might be allowed.

Planning Commissioner Lois Bowers asked if the zoning revision allowing slab construction would apply to stick-built or modular homes, the latter of which might not be welcome in many neighborhoods.

“Your zoning does not distinguish between building types, this (revision) wording envisions either,” replied Harvey, adding that concerns like those expressed by Bowers “are addressed in construction ordinances where you do define floor areas.”

Planning Commission Chairman David Hatfield clarified that major definitions exist between mobile, modular, and manufactured homes.

“They’re three very different things,” Hatfield said. “A manufactured home is actually a stick-built home built in the factory and transported as a modular.”

Hewitt backed up that observation in his public hearing comments, challenging anyone to visit the Northridge Estates development and to look for the two-story modular home to “pick out and tell me which one it is.”

 “From a zoning perspective, a community cannot distinguish between how a building is built,” Harvey said. “It can establish standards such as minimum size and subject to building code requirements.”

That then led to the commission’s final wording of the recommendation approved for city council action: “All dwellings shall be firmly attached to a permanent foundation having the same perimeter dimension as the dwelling unit and meeting City building code requirements.”

The lone dissenting vote came from Maurer based on two concerns, one, the related matter of codifying minimum home size requirements as the ‘tiny home’ movement grows and how that discussion should occur in concert with the foundation matter decided Monday. The commission elected not to couple the two issues, instead voting on the zoning ordinance amendment, in part following Hatfield’s note that the matter carries import for pending construction projects.

Referring clearly to the 73-unit Royal Coach housing project on property formerly owned by Hastings Manufacturing and, possible, the pending construction mentioned by Hawthorne in public hearing comments, Hatfield said, “We have a couple of building programs – especially the project approved through the Community Foundation that are awaiting a ruling before they can break ground.”

Maurer said he also holds to his contention expressed at the Oct. 7 planning commission meeting that full basements are not as prohibitively expensive as has been suggested and ensure strong property values by not creating differences in housing quality.

In other business Monday, the planning commission:

• Received an update report from Harvey on Part II of the Master Plan updates. Harvey discussed progress on three sections of the update, Business Growth, Infrastructure, and Partnerships. Final drafts of the updates could be completed by the end of January.

• Granted a request made by Julie Fox to have her site plan and special use permit for expansion of her canoe livery business be reviewed at the Planning Commission’s next meeting on Dec. 2.

• Heard Hatfield relate that, after reviewing the commission’s bylaws and rules of procedure with King, there may be a couple of “technical corrections” needed to be considered. That discussion will be an agenda item for the Dec. 2 meeting.


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