Councilors: Put brakes on granting variances

Sean C. Morgan

City councilors told the Planning Commission they would prefer that the commission and city ordinance stop allowing variances to land use regulations, specifically concerning manufactured homes, and discussed ways to clean up the interior and exterior of rental properties in Sweet Home during a joint meeting held Nov. 15.

Planning consultants John Morgan and Carol Lewis, a retired Sweet Home city planner, outlined the Planning Commission’s efforts to update the city’s Economic Opportunity Analysis and perform a code audit.

The topics of variances and rental housing arose from discussion about the code audit.


Discussion about granting variances to land use regulations rose in response to concerns about manufactured homes in Sweet Home.

Morgan and Lewis told the council and commission that the state regulates manufactured home parks, and cities are required by law to allow property owners to site manufactured homes on residential property just like site-built homes.

The Planning Commission approved a variance for Josh Victor and Northern Investments in October, allowing him to site what he said were his last two manufactured homes that did not meet the city’s width standard.

Commissioner Lance Gatchell had voted to deny the variance based on concerns about fire safety. Firefighters, including Councilor Dave Trask, had spoken about the fire danger inherent in manufactured homes in May, pointing to fatalities in Sweet Home.

Gatchell had believed that the width standard was a proxy for homes that were older than the 1976 standards set by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Lewis told him at the time that post-standard homes also could be less than the city’s requirement for a 28-foot width, the same standard required for site-built homes.

According to a 2013 report by the National Fire Protection Association, fire deaths in post-standard manufactured homes are no more common than in site-built homes; although upward of 51 percent of manufactured home owners did not have functioning smoke detectors, a requirement for siting them.

The key issue with fire and manufactured homes is the wiring, Josh Victor told the commission. Homes that predate the 1976 standard often have aluminum wiring, which is considered more dangerous. Victor told the commission his homes have copper wiring compliant with the HUD standard, even when they predate the standard.

Building Official Mike Remes-nick told The New Era that manufactured homes must have the copper wiring for city approval.

A 3:12 roof pitch is required for manufactured homes in Sweet Home. Manufactured homes prior to the HUD standard tend to have flat roofs and don’t qualify without a variance, which the commission approved earlier this year for Victor.

Trask told the gathered commissioners and councilors that the council needs to make it clear there won’t be a variance to change the roof pitch for incoming manufactured homes. Councilor Jeff Goodwin echoed the thought, suggesting the city stop issuing variances for homes less than 28 feet wide.

Granting variances sets a precedent, Trask said, and it’ll lead to manufactured homes that are 12 or 18 feet wide.

Developers and property owners currently may apply for variances from the standards. The Planning Commission considers the request based on criteria listed in the ordinance, primarily based on a unique hardship that applies to the specific property, and then may approve or deny the variance.

Lewis told the council that prohibiting variances could lead to lots that cannot be developed, lots that are too small to meet setback requirements and requirements for the dimensions of the structure at the same time because many old lots are small.

Trask pointed to trailer parks where homes are set 5 to 10 feet apart, but Lewis explained that the city cannot set standards for parks, which are regulated by the state.

Regarding manufactured homes, Morgan told the council and commission that the city’s ordinance should at least reflect state law and possibly the 1976 HUD standards.

But, he said, Yamhill’s council felt so strongly about its rules that it included in recent ordinance revisions the phrase, “there shall be no variances to this standard.”

Goodwin said he didn’t care how or what people build; but he didn’t like older mobile homes that banks won’t finance.

“Can we require they just be new? I just don’t want new homes coming in that are substandard. I really want to have a high standard for this city.”

Morgan told him the city would likely run afoul of federal fair housing laws and case law, which treat manufactured homes no different from stick-built homes as long as they meet the same building codes.

“A lot of what I’m talking about is trailer parks,” Goodwin said.

Trask said the city could prohibit homes that do not meet HUD standards, those older than 1976, which cannot get HUD certification.

At a minimum, Morgan said, the council could do that.

Lewis told the council and commission it could implement requirements for skirting. Instead of allowing vinyl siding, it could require a concrete or brick foundation, a continuous stem wall, to prevent “under drafts” during a fire.

“Vinyl siding is awful,” Trask said, adding that unless the fire is across the street from the fire station, the home will be gone.

“The whole point of this is to bring up the neighborhoods,” said Councilmember James Goble, not to bring in mobile homes.

The only way to prevent manufactured homes, Morgan said, is through neighborhood associations and their codes, covenants and restrictions.

In those cases, it’s up to the homeowners association to prevent them, Lewis said.

“It’s extremely common,” Morgan said, but “you wouldn’t be able to justify asking for it.”

In any case, in most communities, it doesn’t make any sense economically to put a cheap house next to an expensive property, Morgan said. “I think the market tends to (control) that rather well.”

Long-term, Lewis said, the areas where the city is seeing that sort of development is where the city hasn’t provided water and infrastructure. The streets are unimproved. It’s in underdeveloped neighborhoods.

If the council wants the neighborhoods to look better, she suggested that the council think about infrastructure.

The city isn’t seeing it in the Avenues, she said.

Trask reiterated his opposition to approving variances to the rules.

“I think we should set a high standard and stick with it,” Trask said. The city allowed a 1971 mobile home on Quince Street.

“I’m against it,” Trask said. If the standard needs to be 1976 or 1980, then the city should make it clear.

Henry Wolthuis, a longtime Planning Commission member, said that fire safety requirements and some building codes should be black and white, but if a developer is replacing a cardboard shack with a manufactured home that meets those safety requirements, it’s worth the variances.

Rental Property

The conversation turned to the condition of rental housing. The council is considering a sample ordinance implemented by Corvallis last year.

Corvallis is enforcing the ordinance indoors and outdoors on rental property, Trask said. He had called Corvallis officials to find out more about how it worked.

Sweet Home has regulations covering the exterior of homes in its nuisance code, Lewis said. It includes rules for everything from broken windows to doors with broken hinges.

Morgan told the council about a program used by Salem and later adopted by Keizer, which contracts with Salem to run the program. Salem licenses multi-family housing annually. The licensing process requires inspections. The fees for the inspections are charged to the owners, who probably pass the cost on to the renters, which could affect affordability.

The housing code applies to single-family and multi-family lots, he said. Mainly, the inspectors are looking for fire protection issues.

“They (renters) would be glad to pay the $10 to live in a habitable home,” Goodwin said in support of the concept. He said he talked to a woman who had a door that won’t open and a landlord who won’t repair it.

He said Sweet Home has two deadbeat landlords who charge shockingly high rents for the quality of their homes, $800 a month for residences with cockroaches, windows that won’t shut and heaters that don’t work.

Goodwin thinks it would help to charge a fee and get inspectors into the homes, including trailers in the parks, he said.

It’s not just trailers, said Councilor Greg Mahler. He discussed a house he was in on First Street where the door wouldn’t open properly. It had no running water, no smoke detectors and the floor was covered in garbage. It had 10 people living in it.

The Corvallis ordinance includes restrictions for water heaters, holes in the floor, working toilets and more, Trask said.

Economic Opportunity Analysis and Code Audit

Morgan outlined for the council what the Planning Commission has been working on to get the meeting going.

To meet the requirements of the state’s Planning Goal Nine, commissioners, together with Morgan and Lewis, are developing an economic opportunity analysis.

Goal Nine requires cities to have policies and programs in place to help guide economic development in the community, Morgan said. According to the rule, “communities will provide enough land to provide for jobs. That’s the bottom line. It’s all about creating jobs, which in most communities means industrial, manufacturing.”

The information is primarily used in other cities to justify the extension of urban growth boundaries, Morgan said, but Sweet Home has a large urban growth boundary, with probably a 50-year supply of land.

He said Sweet Home is fortunate it’s so large because it won’t have to go through a years-long battle to expand it the way other communities do.

The analysis is “an opportunity to look at policies and see if they’re relevant.”

It will inventory industrial land and determine if there is a need for it, Morgan said. A committee including Jim Gourley, Mahler, Wolthuis, Edie Wilcox, Bill Matthews and Jared Cornell is working with EcoNorthwest and Morgan to complete the analysis.

They have held two meetings so far and have a third soon.

After that, the committee will begin passing recommendations to the Planning Commission for adoption as part of the Comprehensive Plan.

While it is probably going to recommend no changes, the analysis will place economic information in one place to assist developers and economic development efforts in the community, he said. It’s the one place where all of the information can be found at once.

It helps answer questions like where Sweet Home is going, and it will inform the code audit, he said. Without it, the community is not eligible for a number of grants.

In the code audit, Morgan, Lewis and the commission are looking for inconsistencies and dead ends in the city’s land use ordinances, Morgan said. For 50 to 60 years, the city has been adding to the code, and it needs to correct references and make sure everything fits together.

It’s better than a lot of codes already, Morgan said, but some improvements will help administrators use the code.

The code audit also asks whether new models or approaches will work for different land use issues, he said. Most cities are about 10 years behind what’s happening. No code planned for the very first drive-through coffee stand, for example.

Present at the meeting were councilors Goble, Mahler, Mayor Jim Gourley, Trask, Diane Gerson and Goodwin and commissioners Greg Stephens, Wilcox, Wolthuis, Eva Jurney and Anay Hausner. Absent were Councilor Ryan Underwood and commissioners Ned Kilpatrick and Gatchell.