A Tale of Zoning Happily Ever After

Categories: Homes / Dwellings

In Florida a Groundbreaking Zoning Ordinace for Tiny House Communities has been passed.

Once upon a time in the small, forward-thinking city of Rockledge, Florida, some of the most progressive tiny housing zoning ordinances in the entire US of A were approved, in record time and with great ease. You see, the forward-thinking City Manager had an eye for viable solutions for the needs of his constituents and a knack for facilitating progress. A fair maiden, by the name of René Hardee approached him & the city planners one fine day with a few simple questions. The rest is history…

A little on the cheesy side? Maybe. But after a recent trip to Florida to witness tiny house movement history in the making, I realized maybe fairytales can come true. The city of Rockledge provides an astonishing example of how smooth the process of creating & approving brand-new zoning regulations can be. Of course every city’s approach to zoning is distinct, with many good reasons. The question is why do some cities make the process so complicated and drawn out? Particularly when presented with a viable idea that benefits residents and provides opportunity for economic development.

This is the story of how one lady, one motivated lady with no zoning knowledge was able to collaborate with her city to update zoning regulations to allow for tiny houses on wheels & on foundation. Her simple request blossomed into simple, straightforward regulations.

“I knew absolutely nothing about zoning. I am physicist by trade; I know nothing about development, real estate, zoning, building codes. I knew nothing”, said René. “It put me in an interesting position when I did go to the city because they’re used to people who do know those things. You can approach your city, not knowing anything, and just go on informational, fact finding type of meeting. I know my city was very accepting of my questions.”

In many ways, René is a typical modern woman. She does a daily juggling act, managing her work schedule with family life, raising two small boys. When you’re a working mom, free time is fleeting and every moment of the day is precious. Time spent cleaning & maintaining a larger home is exhausting. For René, her large home was isolating her family from one another. One day she made a liberating realization that became her motivation for going toward tiny living.

René & her husband, Chris, were having a really rough day with the kids. Chris gets upset and shouts that he just wants his life to be as simple as possible. At first, this did not go over well with René especially in light of their decision to raise a family together. But René really took what he said to heart and realized, “I really want my life to be as simple as possible, too. We just have a lot going on; our life is very chaotic,” René said. She explained that she often reminisces about when she was in grad school, had one-bedroom crappy apartment. René was wanting for nothing, and she remembers being very happy then. Everything was very stable, she just had a few bills. Her life was simple and manageable. Coming home felt like being at peace.

“The more stuff we have, the bigger things get, and the more activities, and the bigger the house, and the more stuff. Everything just starts to get a little out of control. You never get the peace of mind when we come home anymore,” René said. “It gets chaotic.”

A drastically smaller home just might be the key to better quality life for René and her family. And so like many before her, she went down the tiny house research rabbit hole. This included connecting with a Meetup group, participating in tiny house Facebook groups, and attending a tiny house building workshop. All helped René figure out what was right for her & her family. She wanted to build a tiny house on foundation, here in Rockledge, a city that she loved.  

Which led her to another important realization: legal tiny housing, including parking for those on wheels, is perhaps the most elusive of tiny house conundrums (insert hashtag: #tinyhouseproblems). René was not about to move toward building tiny until she know what was allowed or not allowed in her beloved hometown.

“So I went to my city & started a dialogue,” said René, the Florida state chapter leader of theAmerican Tiny House Association.

Filled with passion and hope, René emailed her city Planning Director and requested a meeting. She went into the meeting with a positive, proactive attitude. Key note, she didn’t go into the meeting with any preconceived notions. “When I approached the city, the first thing, I told them were my goals. I said this what my family wants: we want to stay in Rockledge because we love it here, and also want a smaller footprint than I think is allowed, and these are the reasons why. We want more quality time with our family. We want to put our money in the places that we care about, like in the community, like going out to eat, those types of things. Versus in extra space in our house that we’re not using. Or maybe in even into kids college funds or retirement,” said René. She gave them a list of what they’re we’re trying to accomplish as a family and why. She asked, “What are our options? What can we do here within current zoning regulations?”

This led to explorative discussion with the city Planning Director and City Planner, which started with them sharing Rockledge’s minimum square footage requirement, 1,200 square feet. This was a larger than René wanted to go, so she followed up with a question about what were her options for going smaller. The planners brainstormed to come up with options that might work for her. They suggested smaller houses that were available in the city that had been grandfathered in, around 700 square feet. René & Chris, thoughtfully considered this. The available houses were in great disrepair and the necessary work to upfit these to meet the needs of their family seemed incredibly daunting and unrealistic.  

So René went back to the planning folks for further brainstorming and presented an idea. “So a 1,200 square feet, that’s the minimum; can I build two, 600 square foot houses and connect them with covered breezeway?” Hmm, they thought about it and said yes, as long as they’re on the same foundation and one of the houses doesn’t have a kitchen. René then asked, “What’s a kitchen?” A kitchen has a stove in it; that’s the planners’ definition. You could have everything else you would need in that space, like a fridge, toaster, burners, etc., just no stove. Taking it a step further, René ventured, “Then can I build four, 300 square foot houses, and still be within the 1,200 square feet requirement?” Maybe in a square configuration, connected with covered breezeways, and maybe in the the middle you put in a community garden or another community element.

That’s where the community aspect entered the conversation. It went from a one-off request, benefitting just René’s family to something more inclusive & appealing. By talking through zoning guidelines & asking questions, a community idea came together. They, René & the planners, put they’re heads together to draft a vision for tiny housing in Rockledge. That’s when she shared Ross Chapin’s pocket neighborhoods of the northwest, which the city fell in love with.

City Manager James McKnight, said, “This was an effectively a citizens’ initiative. It started with a citizen in our community who was obviously talking with other citizens in our community, as well as those way outside our community. It’s not an idea coming from top down; it was started at the grassroots. That’s what you hope you have in your community, is people who come up with ideas, and those ideas come to some kind successful conclusion for everybody.”

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