Smaller homes approved for some zoning districts

It is now legal in Brown County to live in a home as small as 240 square feet.

The Brown County Area Plan Commission and Brown County Commissioners unanimously OK’d that size of house if it’s on land zoned FR (forest reserve). That new minimum applies to a one- or a two-story home.

On land zoned R2 (residential) or LR (lake residence), the new minimum size is 500 square feet if it’s a one-story, single-family home, or 1,000 square feet if it’s a one-story, two-family home. R2-zoned land is generally along county roads, Planning Director Chris Ritzmann said.

The boards also lowered the minimum square footage for homes that are more than one story tall. In zoning districts R2 and LR, they went from 600 to 500 square feet for a single-family home. Those numbers apply to the ground floor size, not the total square footage.

Speakers at the March 27 APC meeting and the April 4 commissioners meeting urged the boards to vote for lowering the minimums.

They believe that there’s demand for “small” and “minimalist” living in Brown County, and that the county ought to embrace that concept. It might even bring “much-needed young families” here, said resident Kyle Birkemeier, who works at Indiana University.

“I know a lot of people … in the homesteading community who have expressed a desire to move to Brown County with similar dreams, and I think this is a great step,” he said.

IU student Samantha Badger, who lives in Brown County, said that minimalist living is a growing trend among her peers. “We want a smaller dwelling space, or at least the freedom to create a smaller dwelling space,” she said.

Badger is an architecture and interior design student. She said that the smaller a house can be, the more people can afford to spend on making it “greener,” like through geothermal or solar energy. “It opens a lot of doors financially,” she said about building smaller houses.

She also said it would open opportunities for people who don’t have a lot of money to build and own a home and to create a sense of equity.

Brown County resident Mike Morris saluted the APC for its “open-mindedness.” He called shrinking the minimum home sizes a great start to help generations come back to Brown County, or not move away in the first place.

Real estate agent Robyn Bowman expressed some reservations. She said her first apartment was 600 square feet and she didn’t have space to put anything, and she lived alone. If that one person were to become two, then three or four, where would the extra stuff go, she asked. Would it end up on the lawn?

She also questioned whether people are going to want to live in these smaller houses forever. “Yes, we’re going through a phase where everyone likes this, because they think it’s affordable,” she said. But in 20 years, she asked, are people going to buy these homes and try to expand them, and run into problems because they have small septic systems?

The smallest septic system the county will currently allow is one that will support two bedrooms.

The APC voted unanimously to make those changes to the county’s home size ordinance, and the county commissioners followed that up with a positive vote April 4.

Changes go into effect immediately, the commissioners said.

Minimum home sizes did not change on land zoned R1 (residential, generally along state roads), GB (general business) or AB (accommodation business). Those minimums are still 900, 600 and 600, respectively, for one-story homes.

County resident Andy Szakaly spoke in favor of the ordinance change at the commissioners meeting.

“We have to have more workforce housing,” he said. “We have some of the most expensive real estate in the state of Indiana. Everything I read says we need more folks living here and working here. Cook Industries is expanding in Bloomington. They said they can’t get enough help. I can tell you from personal experience that anything you can do with this area will be helpful.”

Not done yet

More work remains to be done on county ordinances related to this issue, APC members said.

The APC has not yet addressed the concept of “accessory dwellings,” or building a small home in the yard of an existing home. Right now, only one dwelling is allowed per parcel, so a person couldn’t put a “tiny home” in their back yard, even with this recent ordinance change.

The APC also is still talking about shrinking minimum lot size requirements.

On March 27, the board tossed around the idea of reducing the amount of FR-zoned land a person would need before building a home on it — such as the smallest-allowed home of 240 square feet — but didn’t come to any conclusions. Currently, the minimum acreage is 5 in that zoning district. It ranges from a half-acre to 2 acres in other zoning districts.

Nearly every month, the APC hears from people who need the board’s approval to subdivide land. President Dave Harden said he’s been associated with the board since 1983 and it’s never turned down one of those requests. Shrinking the minimum might cut down on the steps some people have to take before building, said APC member Russ Herndon.

Resident Susanne Gaudin cautioned the board about putting densely populated neighborhoods in forested land because of the potential for wildfires, and the fact that all fire departments in the county are manned by volunteers only. She asked that the APC not make volunteers’ jobs harder by giving them more people to respond to in “forest reserve” areas.

Another emergency services concern is road widths, she said. A lot of roads are inadequate for those vehicles now, let alone if more homes and more people move in along them.

She said that creating “villages” of smaller houses or smaller lot sizes is a good idea, but it shouldn’t be considered for areas that don’t have sewers, because they’re needed to make it work.

“It’s more than just, ‘We need to get more people in Brown County,’” she said. “We have to make sure we bring them here in a safe way.”

Jim Schultz, vice president of the Brown County Redevelopment Commission, said another factor that affects the availability of “affordable” housing is the number of tourist homes. Ritzmann said there are about 300 tourist homes in Brown County now.

“We have a declining enrollment in our schools, and in the tax plan that our government presently uses, property tax is secondary to local income tax. And without residents making incomes, there is no local income tax,” Schultz said.

APC member Jane Gore, who works in real estate, agreed that tourist homes need a second look. She said she thinks the county probably had enough homes at one time, but as tourist homes, they have now been turned into businesses.

Schultz believes the value of tourist homes drive up the “dirt cost” of property in Brown County, which can price people out of the housing market.

APC member Debbie Bartes pointed out that many of those tourist homes are locally managed, cleaned and serviced. However, those are not high-wage jobs, other members said.

Maybe if minimum lot sizes were reduced, like the home sizes were, more people could have opportunities to live here, Herndon said. If a person can pay less for their land and their building, “all of a sudden, these things can make it work,” he said.

John Kennard, who works for the local health department, said that sometimes, large lot sizes are needed because there may only be one suitable location for a septic system.

Schultz advised the county officials at the meeting to look into the differing soil conditions in various parts of the county and what other kinds of wastewater treatment systems might work there.

Resident Joe Nichols asked why any board felt like they had to tell a property owner what they could and couldn’t do with their property, as long as it met codes. “Why is your vision for Brown County better than their rights to their own property?” he asked.

“I understand your point totally,” Harden said. “I agree somewhat.”

The central question comes down to population density — how close your neighbors are to you and how that affects people’s quality of life, said new Nashville resident Greg Bowes. He asked board members to think about whether they want to encourage or discourage people from moving to Brown County, and for what reason — and how their decisions could affect the quality of life of the people who already live here.

APC member Carol Bowden, who’s also on the school board, said she knows of teachers who have had to decline jobs in Brown County, and families who wanted to come to Brown County schools, but they couldn’t make it work because they couldn’t find housing they could afford.

“Changing lot sizes may give more opportunities in some places,” she said.

“I think that’s kind of what we’re trying to do here,” Herndon said.

“It’s a multifaceted issue here, and we’re just, like, touching the edge of it,” Schultz said.

Discussion will continue at the next APC meeting April 24.

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Sara Clifford has been raising a family in Brown County since 2005 and leading the Brown County Democrat since late 2009. In addition to editor, she is the beat reporter for town government and writes columns, features and general news stories.