Land Use: Beware demolitions via “historically narrow lots”

By Terry Griffiths

The City of Portland is misrepresenting what it calls “historically narrow lots” to bypass a safeguard intended to slow down home demolitions. It betrays both current zoning and a compromise made with neighborhoods in 2003, affecting about a quarter of the Woodstock neighborhood’s single-family homes. (See the map below.) To better understand the deception, come along on a quick trip through time.

Click the map to see it larger.

Early 1900s: Housing subdivisions often were created with parcels of adjacent 25’ x 100’ plats — like the segments of a chocolate bar. A prospective home buyer could choose a 50’ x 100’ lot, a 75’ x 100’ lot or a 100’ x 100’ lot by selecting the appropriate number of plats. Virtually all the homes in these subdivisions were built on lots of one of those three dimensions until 1990.

About 1990: As buildable lots became scarce, developers began to apply for permits to divide larger lots and build on underlying 25’ x 100’ plats even in areas with R5 zoning, which required 5,000 square feet of land per dwelling (or at least 3,000 in certain circumstances) at that time — and the City acquiesced. The resulting infill housing tended to be tall and narrow, generally out of proportion with the fabric of pre-existing neighborhood homes.

Nearby homeowners were perplexed. Convinced that the premise of R5 zoning was being cast aside, neighborhoods challenged the City. After a long and hotly contested process, a compromise was reached in 2003.

2003: The compromise stated that if a dwelling was demolished on a lot with underlying 25’ x 100’ plats, only one plat could be built on in replacement. Any remaining plat(s) had to stay vacant for five years before qualifying as a buildable lot. Neighborhoods believed the compromise would stave off demolitions.

Today: The City’s draft proposal for its Residential Infill Project actually consists of eight proposals. Proposal 7 is to “Allow new houses on historically narrow lots [italics added] near Centers and Corridors within the R5 zone,” bypassing the five-year waiting period after a demolition. It goes on to mischaracterize plats, which were only ever intended to offer size options of at least 50’ by 100’ to the original purchasers, as “lots … historically created in 25-foot-wide increments.”

The mislabeling of plats as discrete lots is a betrayal of both the premise of R5 zoning and of the compromise made with neighborhoods in 2003. If so-called “historically narrow lots” become eligible to be built on, the number of demolitions and the pace of neighborhood change will increase. The City must acknowledge that it proposes to effectively rezone a substantial amount of residential area from R5 to R2.5 — and it needs to notify affected property owners accordingly.

If your home is in an affected area (see the map), here’s what you can do: Follow the progress of the Residential Infil Project on the City’s website, where you can review the draft proposal, sign up for updates and get ready to say your piece. Public hearings begin in October. The next opportunity for public input begins this winter.

Terry Griffiths has been an active member of the Woodstock Neighborhood Association Land Use Committee since 1985.