Government & Politics

Will these new design standards protect Prairie Village’s charm? Commission votes

Neighborhood design standards draws large crowd in Prairie Village

A large crowd turned out Tuesday night in Prairie Village at a public hearing before the planning commission to voice concerns about the neighborhood design standards, guidelines for new home construction and improvements over 200 square feet.
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A large crowd turned out Tuesday night in Prairie Village at a public hearing before the planning commission to voice concerns about the neighborhood design standards, guidelines for new home construction and improvements over 200 square feet.

Prairie Village’s latest attempt to control the development of large homes within the city received unanimous support from the Prairie Village Planning Commission on Tuesday.

Commissioners voted to recommend approval for a slate of neighborhood design standards that is now headed for a City Council vote on Oct. 1.

But the vote came only after more than two dozen residents and business owners weighed in on the proposal, showing that the issue of tear-downs and rebuilds within Prairie Village continues to generate emotions on both sides of the debate.

Prairie Village, like other cities in northeast Johnson County, has seen a rapid increase in recent years of property owners tearing down the mid-century ranch and Cape Cod houses the city is known for and replacing them with much larger homes.

In some cases, residents have complained that the new, larger buildings overshadow their neighbors, cause drainage problems. But one of the biggest complaints is that they are generally out of character with the rest of the neighborhood.

Supporters of the restrictions on Tuesday said the rule changes were necessary to protect the city’s charm.

“I am appalled by some of the sizes of the houses being built on these tiny little lots,” said Nancy Morgan. “If you want to live in a giant spacious house then there are plenty of other lots in the metropolitan area that you can build these giant houses, and I really hate to see our small little houses being overpowered. And it’s changing the landscape of Prairie Village.”

Chris Smart, a Realtor, countered that many of the city’s small houses have reached the end of their economic lives and that neighbors’ concerns with large houses dissipate once construction is finished.

“The old houses and the new houses can work together and do,” Smart said. “The best neighborhoods combine older and younger residents from different social and economic backgrounds. This won’t be lost when we allow people to build what they want to build in our quaint village.”

The City Council in 2016 implemented a group of regulations for property that were designed to address the more serious problems. For example, they limited building heights and restricted how close new homes could be built to side property lines.

But some residents and city officials felt those rules didn’t go far enough and have developed a second round of development restrictions, which address both building designs and “streetscaping” the look of front yards. They would apply to home rebuilds and home expansions of more than 200 square feet.

One of the most controversial proposals would have prohibited buildings, sidewalks, driveways and other impervious surfaces from covering more than 40 percent of a rebuilt or expanded home’s front yard and no more than 35 percent of the entire lot, a regulation aimed at limiting additional storm water runoff.

Critics said such a regulation would be difficult to meet, force builders to add floors to comply and prevent homeowners from adding patios or other outdoor entertainment areas.

“Do we want to be the community that tells people you can’t have common amenities? I don’t think I’d want that,” Dennis O’Roark, an architect who worked on a committee that developed the guidelines, told the commission.

Instead, commissioners agreed to raise the entire lot limit to 40 percent impervious surface,

“It does feel it’s a bit of a challenge for smaller lots,” said Commissioner Gregory Wolf.

Other proposed guidelines would:

Require all lots to have one tree planted near the street with lots more than 80 feet wide needing two trees.

Ask designers to use windows to break up large building walls and setting minimums for windows and doors on the front of homes.

Create limits on garages and garage door sizes.

Mandate that builders alert surrounding property owners by mail of new rebuilds to prepare them for street disruptions caused by the construction.

Katie Aaronson, who supported the new guidelines, said the new, larger homes have caused property taxes in some areas to spike.

“If we want to keep the quaintness of Prairie Village – and that is the attractor pattern – we need to keep the look,” Aaronson said.

Susan Forrest said the proposed guidelines would require her to make changes to an addition she’s planning for her home but that she still supported the regulations. She said she especially likes the garage limitations and the push for less impervious area.

“I think not only do we have to think about our storm water problem, but what we do affects everybody downstream,” Forrest said. “I think it’s really responsible of us to have more greenspace here.”

Mark Eddy, a builder, said the city should be spending more time pushing for better quality homes instead of adding to regulations to development.

“We have seen a massive influx of families who want to live here,” Eddy said. “I don’t want to see that squashed by a knee-jerk reaction with these restrictions.”

David Walsh said the proposed regulations were based on similar guidelines developed in Fairway, Chicago and Minneapolis, and that city staff should find out whether the restrictions negatively affected residential and economic development in those communities before approving them.

“I want to build my forever home here in Prairie Village,” Walsh said, “but I’m afraid I’m not going to be able to because these restrictions are a little bit more onerous.”

The commissioners tweaked some of the technical pieces of the regulations and debated how best to require property owners to plant trees in neighborhoods that have not traditionally had tree “colonnades” along city streets.

They also recommended that if the council approves of the new guidelines, they should not go into effect until four months later to give projects already underway time to be approved under the current regulations.

David Twiddy: