Waco City Council on Tuesday agreed to allow homebuilders to create smaller lots in the heart of the city but remained split on the need for a special permit to allow them.

The council voted 5-1 to cut the minimum lot size in half if certain conditions are met. The ordinance also would require the applicant to get a special permit, subject to a public hearing before the Plan Commission and council.

The council will hold a second and final vote on the ordinance March 1.

Dillon Meek, who represents North Waco, cast the dissenting vote, saying the special permit requirement is an unnecessary hurdle to redeveloping the inner city. Councilman Kyle Deaver agreed but voted with the majority after council members Alice Rodriguez and Wilbert Austin voiced worries about adding small homes to established neighborhoods.

The ordinance would apply only to certain zoning categories within the “City Center” area, which stretches from East Waco to North 25th Street and from Baylor University to Cameron Park.

Imagine Waco plan

The ordinance was inspired by the Imagine Waco plan for the city center and is intended to repopulate inner-city areas that have lost population. Several property owners have expressed an interest in small-lot developments, including Nancy Grayson, the Lula Jane’s bakery owner and Rapoport Academy founder, who wants to build cottages just off Elm Avenue.

In a public hearing Tuesday, Grayson urged the council to pass the ordinance without the special permit requirement, which she called redundant.

She said the proposed ordinance already holds small-lot developments to a high standard, including requirements for architectural review by city staff to ensure the compatibility of the design with the surrounding neighborhood.

The ordinance requires front porches and street-facing doors, as well as restrictions on occupancy, parking, driveways and access. Small lots also would be prohibited on streets narrower than 26 feet wide.

Last month, by a 10-1 margin, the Plan Commission recommended the council pass the small-lot ordinance without the special permit requirement, as city staff had recommended.

Several commission members urged the council Tuesday to allow the small lots by right.

“The staff has done a fabulous job, so safeguards are in place,” commission member LaRaine DuPuy said. “If one more roadblock, i.e., a special permit, is put in place, I think that’s going to be a deterrent to people who might be interested in doing this.”

Commission chairman Jose Villanueva said the ordinance allows the owner of a city block to add several more homes, making inner-city development more cost-effective. He said staff review is enough to resolve issues with parking or compatibility.

“Having it be by special permit, that tells city staff we don’t trust them,” Villanueva said.

Commission member Andrew Lopez disagreed, saying he supports projects such as Grayson’s but wants Plan Commission and council review to ensure compatibility with existing neighborhoods.

In an afternoon work session, Councilwoman Rodriguez, who represents South Waco, said she would approve the ordinance only with the special permit requirement.

Rodriguez said she has no problem with a contained development of small-lot homes, but she is uneasy about allowing small lots with small homes to be shoehorned into existing neighborhoods. She said she worries the houses could eventually become an eyesore.

“I was raised in a house like that,” said Rodriguez, who grew up near First Street Cemetery in a house that later was razed by federal slum clearance programs. “My neighborhood was all shotgun houses.”

Mayor Malcolm Duncan Jr. said he gave weight to the concerns raised by Rodriguez and Austin, since their districts could be especially affected by the ordinance. He argued that a special permit would not create an intolerable burden on applicants’ time, since they would normally be going through a two-month re-platting process anyway.

Meek suggested that the city waive the $250 special permit fee, but Duncan said he was uneasy with setting a precedent for waiving those fees.

Payday lending

In other business Tuesday, the council approved on its second and final reading an ordinance regulating payday and auto title lenders. The ordinance, identical to those passed in some 30 Texas cities, limits the size of payday and auto title loans according to the borrower’s income and limits the number of times a loan may be renewed. The measure passed 5-1, with Councilman John Kinnaird opposed on grounds that financial institutions should be regulated by the state, not the city.

A grass-roots group called Citizens for Responsible Lending has been pushing for the regulation for the past year and found a champion in Meek. Phil York, one of the group’s organizers, said he was gratified by the council’s vote, but the group’s work in curbing lending abuses isn’t over.

“A lot of our energy will be going into education,” York said. “This is just one piece.”

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