Surprise council balks at small side yards, large number of narrow lots

Final development code to be voted on Dec. 15


Surprise councilors, planners and staffers have compromised with home builders’ representatives and developers during the process of updating its proposed land development ordinances.

But as the council nears its final hearing for health code regulations and possible approval at the Dec. 15 Surprise City Council meeting, the council and developer interests remain divided on two areas of proposed code language. During its Dec. 1 work session, the City Council reached a consensus on the other seven language alterations suggested for the document by developers.

Developers wanted the minimum size of side yards for new houses to be five feet on each side — while the council and the Surprise Planning and Zoning Commission agreed that one side of new yards should be a minimum of seven feet on one type of lot, and a minimum of eight feet on larger lots — the other side yard can be five feet.

“If developers want to continue focusing on starter homes, we can at least require them to offer homes that have features desired by the resale market. We rely on WeSERV to help us understand what buyers of existing homes are looking for in a home,” Vice Mayor Chris Judd stated in an email interview. “As I understand it, resale home buyers prefer lots with setbacks larger than 5’. Having a larger setback also helps reduce the costs of renovations and pool building.”

Council broke with one planning commission suggested change that would have allowed subdivisions to have as much as 75% of their lots less than 48-feet wide. Every council member that spoke Dec. 1 wanted no more than 50% of new subdivision homes to be on lots less than 48-feet wide.

In particular, councilors were concerned that allowing up to three-quarters of a new development to have small lots. And Gammage & Burnam PLC requested the addition to “cluster home” designs — which have four- and six-pack designs that several council members equated with almost a condominium.
Councilman Ken Remley asked about cluster homes and was told by Surprise Planner Joshua Mike the minimum lot width on this kind of products would be 35 feet.

“The builders, believe me, are getting the money out of their lane. We need to have a standard that we’re proud of, and this is not it,” Mr. Remley said.

Mr. Mike said cluster homes tend to come into play on parcels that have large areas of natural washes and hillside environments

During the meeting, Mr. Judd said his concern with writing cluster home designs into the plan is it limits the council’s freedom to approve or deny individual on a case-by-case basis to only the design process’s platting stage. Without the blanket allowance of cluster homes, developers would have to request a rezoning if they want to use this density.

Assistant Director of Community Development Lloyd Abrams also said under a rezoning request, the council would have more discretion than a final plat process.

“It’s more of an administrative process when approving plats. What you’re looking for on the approval of plats is that they meet our current standards,” Surprise City Attorney Robert Wingo said.

Mr. Judd stated in his email Dec. 3 it is important to recognize Surprise has some great developers creating fantastic products. But during these discussions he and other council members expressed a desire to move away from the city’s image as a haven for “starter” homes to a place where people can start but then stay in a larger home with more amenities.

“My concern with small-lot homes is that people will move out as fast as they possibly can. When they move out of their starter home, they are often forced to leave our city since the options to move into upgraded houses are limited. This leads to a very transient population,” Mr. Judd stated. "I would like people to have opportunities to create roots in Surprise and help keep our community a great place to live and visit.”

In a letter sent to the city Nov. 16 by the Home Builders Association of Central Arizona, the argument for including a 2,000- to 3,499-square-foot cluster home product is that it “provides yet another avenue for builders and developers to respond to rapidly changing market conditions, evolving consumer preferences and unique land and development challenges.”

In a letter addressed to Mr. Mike, builder Taylor Morrison stated city staff has done a “great” job creating a transparent and open dialogue with stakeholders during the code update.

But developer representatives still promoted smaller side yards.

“We understand City and P&Z desire to retain the 5’ & 7’ and 5’ & 8’ setbacks. Contrastingly, we have shared that price sensitive buyers trying to seek approval for a mortgage are not willing to pay for this additional side yard space. Therefore 5’ & 5’ side setbacks are necessary for providing a certain amount of affordable housing within a project,” the letter read.

There was less division over having more than one product and more than one lot size in a master-planned community.

While initial proposals requiring a range of products in the same block of a master plan were tempered, the code that will go forward requires at least three different products in the entire development of 7 square miles or larger. At least one of these products has a minimum of 8,000 to 11,999 square feet in lot size.

After discussions, the codes also allow for the option of a gated community as part of master plan — as long as it does not significantly disrupt the master plan’s trail and traffic plan.

“Having mid-class and high-end homes are not part of the discussion here because of the way we’ve written it. Those homes aren’t going to be hindered by these ordinances,” Mr. Mike said. “The stakeholders are agreeable to that part of the code.”