The brief and controversial career of twin homes

by Jordan Green

The proposed Land Development Ordinance is meant to streamline rezoning and modernize Greensboro with a measured increase in urban density, maintaining a tree canopy, giving public transit and pedestrians a nudge of support and better connecting streets.

Of all these aspects, one particular item has come roaring in with a vengeance to brake the initiative’s momentum. Twin homes, defined as a building consisting of two singlefamily dwelling units, each occupying its own conventional connected along a common wall with no interior circulation between the two, have produced the most sour note.

During a hearing on Feb. 9, a couple speakers described twin homes as a kind of stealth tool to smuggle duplexes into neighborhoods zoned for single-family homes. Homeowners organized under the umbrella of the Greensboro Neighborhood Congress mobilized last week and met with Planning Director Dick Hails for a 45-minute discussion of the provision.

“A lot of people prize the fact that their home is zoned single family and they see this as an intrusion,” said Marsh Prause, a lawyer and Westerwood resident who chairs the issues and bylaws committee for the neighborhood con gress.

The Land Development Ordinance allows twin homes to be built only on corner lots with frontage on at least one designated thoroughfare street.

“Corner lots are really important because they anchor a block face,” Prause said. “If you put something on a corner that’s not up to the standards of the rest of the block, the concern that people have is that it could cause deterioration for the rest of the block.”

There’s a widespread misconception that twin homes are duplexes, which are defined as “a building on one zone lot arranged and designed to be occupied by two families living independently of each other.” Based on that misunderstanding, it’s easy to see that some homeowners would conclude that the city is trying to cram more housing into corner lots by doubling their occupancy.

In fact, the lot size requirement for twin homes is higher than that of traditional homes in the proposed R-5 designation (which roughly equates to five houses per acre and covers much of Westerwood, Lindley Park, Glenwood, Aycock and Fisher Park). Only in the proposed R-7 designation — covering much of College Hill, along with a small strip along Martin Street near Bennett College — is the lot size requirement lower for twin homes. The minimum lot size for traditional homes in this designation is 4,000 square feet; for twin

homes, 3,500 square feet.

The notion that a developer could carve a 4,000-square-foot lot in half and build a pair of twin homes with two units on it is just incorrect, Planning Manager Rawls Howard told me. Instead, a developer would have to assemble at least 7,000 acres and subdivide it into two new lots.

“We want to provide housing diversity and choice,” Howard said.

Prause said the reintroduction of twin homes to single-family zoned neighborhoods reminds homeowners of the time before the current Unified Development Ordinance went into effect in 1992, when developers were allowed to build duplexes on corner lots.

“It caused all kinds of problems,” he said. “Even when they changed it, it left grandfathered lots around colleges.”

Like Prause, I’m a resident of Westerwood. I pointed out to him that I live on a lot zoned single-family in a house that has been chopped into three apartments.

So, what’s to stop developers from building duplexes, or triplexes, under the current ordinance, I asked.

Prause replied that, frankly, the dwelling where I live and enjoy modest rent on a serene street is probably illegal. About five years ago, members of the neighborhood association fought a battle to keep property owners from chopping up single-family houses and renting them to fraternities.

We have some loud parties in the neighborhood. It’s not the most attractive feature of Westerwood, but I’ve come to view it as part of the mix, and I’m not ashamed to admit that I’ve partaken in at least one or two of them.

The twin homes provision may well end up being stripped out of the Land Development Ordinance. Following the beating the provision took during the public hearing, at-large Councilman Robbie Perkins suggested that the council go ahead and strike it from the draft to avoid controversy. One of the more farsighted members of the council and a member who typically backs up staff, Perkins perhaps reasoned that twin homes are too small an issue to risk jeopardizing the entire ordinance overhaul.

Last week, the neighborhood congress passed a resolution in support of requiring developers to file for a rezoning in a higher density designation and hold a public hearing before building twin homes.

“Our proposal is to keep twin homes the same way it is today, and that’s the way I think it will happen,” Newton said. “I think — I hope council will come to the same conclusion. And I think they’ll be the ones to make the decision.”