Posted on January 20, 2013


skillmanIf you don’t live in Southdowns you may have been inclined to chalk up the recent battle over a property owner’s requested zoning change as just another neighborhood land-use dispute. But the brouhaha surrounding Ben Skillman’s property raises interesting questions about the city’s new land-use plan, FuturEBR: how it defines a residential neighborhood and what that definition really means.

“To me, this is really the biggest conundrum in FuturEBR,” says CPEX Director Elizabeth “Boo” Thomas. “The plan defines certain areas as ‘residential,’ but no one is really clear on what that means.”

The issue is relevant to the Southdowns controversy, which was temporarily shelved when Skillman withdrew his rezoning request. But it has broader implications for a parish with a fabled history of spot zoning, a pervasive property-rights mentality and countless examples of heated land-use disputes. Though FuturEBR is supposed to change those dynamics and make development easier, the plan is short on certain specifics and, more importantly, still lacks the force of law.

“We have to make this plan code,” says Skillman’s attorney Randy Roussel, of FuturEBR. “It can’t just be a suggestion.”

Roussel should know: His client was firmly in the crosshairs of Southdowns residents who opposed Skillman’s attempt earlier this fall to rezone his 1.3-acre tract at the corner of Perkins Road and Stuart Avenue from A1 residential to infill small planned use development, a change that would have enabled the longtime landowner to sell the property for top dollar to two psychiatrists.

Neighbors went ballistic, arguing the area is already overrun with commercial establishments on the north side of Perkins Road, and dotted on the south side of the thoroughfare with at least a couple of businesses that arguably don’t belong: namely, a tattoo parlor and a KFC. They also made no secret of their opposition to psychiatrists moving a mental health practice into the neighborhood, next to the church parish school, St. Aloysius.

Among the ammunition they pulled from their arsenal was the FuturEBR land-use map, a one-page document in the plan that clearly shows the entire Southdowns area designated “residential.” In slogans on yard signs that dotted neighborhood lawns, they urged the Planning Commission, Metro Council and anyone else who would listen to “Follow FuturEBR” and “Keep Southdowns residential.”
Problem is, the definition of a residential neighborhood in FuturEBR does not exactly dovetail with the prevailing wisdom of what a residential neighborhoods should be, at least not the way it is understood to be in Southdowns—a neighborhood that consists almost entirely of postwar, single-family homes built at low-to-moderate density.

It’s important to understand the issue of density. In a typical residential neighborhood zoned A-1, or single-family, the average density is .25 on the industry-standard FAR scale, which measures the ratio of a structure’s square footage to the size of the lot on which it sits. A density of .25 means the floor area of the dwelling is one-fourth of the lot. A density of .5 means the dwelling is half the lot. A density of 5 means the dwelling is five times the lot size, as in a five-story building.

Here’s why that measurement matters. In the land-use section of FuturEBR, a chart suggests that residential neighborhoods should have a density that ranges from .25 to 1. That spread means the neighborhood ideally has anywhere from a spacious four units per acre to a much denser 16.

…as reported by