By Robert Nathan
Killeen Daily Herald
HARKER HEIGHTS – The city's proposed zoning changes likely will increase developers' building costs and raise monthly payments for home buyers and renters, contractors and real estate agents predicted this week.
The City Council and its planning and development department are proposing increasing the minimum lot size from 7,800 square feet to 8,400 square feet for duplexes. Also suggested is a 2,500-square-foot increase per unit in multifamily housing and a 25-foot minimum front yard setback.
Additional ground cover and other landscaping improvements would be required for residential housing and commercial developments – including a minimum of two six-foot trees and eight three-gallon shrubs in front yards.
While local developers expressed mixed feelings about the proposed changes at Tuesday's City Council workshop meeting, some area real estate agents agree the changes would improve the city's appearance and property values. But they said rent would likely increase when builders' expenses are passed on to consumers.
"It's really easy to say that we should tighten down on what's going to be required for multifamily neighborhoods or else you're going to create yourself a mini-ghetto," said Johnny Vacca, a real estate agent with Colonial Real Estate in Harker Heights. "It just gets too tight and too compacted."
Vacca said the city's proposed landscaping requirements sound appealing because they would improve the appearance of new structures. But, he claimed, they are not practical to enforce in a community where many duplex and multifamily housing owners and renters are out of town at various times of the year due to military obligations.
During Tuesday's workshop, Gary Purser Jr., one of more than a dozen developers who voiced opinions on the proposed changes, shared concerns over the landscaping, saying developers would likely bear the higher maintenance costs.
"You can landscape all you want, it doesn't matter whether it is residential or R-2 or R3, but if it is not maintained, and we know that it is not going to be for the biggest part, then someone is going to be spending a lot of (extra) money," Purser predicted.
Developer John Reider said the larger lot size requirements would raise utility rates and said residents would not want to maintain the extra landscaping. Other developers agreed larger lots are more difficult to maintain.
Countering those concerns, Vacca asserted, "Every day somebody is asking me for a bigger yard. Very rarely does someone say I want a smaller yard."
Vacca said renters will "talk out of both sides of the mouth because they want a bigger yard, but don't want to take care of it."
Increasing the minimum lot size of multifamily housing will increase rental costs, he predicted. Currently, he said, the average rent for a new, three bedroom unit in a four-plex in Harker Heights is about $625 to $650. Vacca rejects the notion that the proposed changes would turn consumers away from the local market.
He foresees other problems.
"There has to be a stopping point in the maximum rental cost because the military income in the area is limited," Vacca acknowledged. "It (larger lot sizes) will increase it (rent), but what will probably happen is going to backlash back. They (the owners) won't be able to get the rent, the rent will come back down, and it is going to hurt the person who bought it."
Leeann Suttles, vice president of Heights Properties, said the proposed changes could have both positive and negative impacts. She said higher costs might deter some potential renters. However, others might pay more because the homes look better. Suttles said the rows of four-plexes in nearby communities are not attractive to some renters.
"In the short term, it is going to be rough, but in the long run, it will be better for the community," Suttles said.
Dr. Ray Shanaa, director of planning and development, said he plans to discuss the proposed zoning changes at another workshop with the council. Public hearings must also be held, a process that might take several months, he added.
"There is no doubt some of these changes will increase the cost of development simply because if we require more land and more setbacks and landscaping, that is going to increase the cost," Shanaa said in May. "But we also believe it will improve the quality of development and therefore the value of the development itself. In a way you spend more money and you have a better product."
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