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Defining ‘family’ not so easy for zoning purposes

Tired of all-night parties, yards used as parking lots and  overflowing trash cans, a community near Western Carolina University is taking aim at student rental houses.

The Village of Forest Hills plans to limit the number of people who can live under the same roof unless they are family. But exactly how many unrelated people should be allowed to live together has been a source of debate for several months.

Initially, the town planning board suggested a maximum of four non-related people living in the same house. But the town board thought it seemed like too many and instead suggested a limit of just two.

Two is a better number, according to Clark Corwin, who sits on both the planning board and town board. Four was simply too weak, he said.

“The essence of the ordinance would be almost absent,” Corwin said.

If four students shared a house, and each had a girlfriend or boyfriend, the actual number coming and going on a daily basis could mushroom to eight.

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But a limit of only two drastically limits the rental market in Forest Hills’ neighborhoods. Landlords are left with a much smaller pool of eligible renters, according to Ron Hancock, a planner with the N.C. Division of Community Assistance in Asheville, which aids small towns like Forest Hills that don’t have trained staff to address planning and zoning issues.

“If someone has a home that has been a rental for years and all of a sudden their revenue has been cut off, they might take offense to that,” Hancock said. That’s why Hancock had recommended four, and cautioned that two was too restrictive.

But Olin Dunford, another member of the planning board, said the greater good has to be considered.

“I am not totally against college students renting houses,” Dunford said. “I have to think about what if I moved away and wanted to rent my house. But as a good respectable neighborhood, we had to consider that four was too many.”

Hancock agrees that Forest Hills’ character is incongruous with that of a typical college house.

“The core issue is that students tend to have an active nightlife,” Hancock said. “Forest Hills is a quiet little community of mainly single-family homes.”

Corwin has lived across the street from a house of college students for several years. Parents of a student bought the house for their daughter to live in while at school, figuring it would be cheaper in the long run than renting an apartment for four years. She played on the golf team, and several of her teammates shared the house.

Corwin said the golfers weren’t so bad. They would usually come across the street and let him know before they had a party.

But after she graduated, the house was rented to students who weren’t so courteous. Corwin counted six to eight cars that came and went from the house regularly.

Dunford said parking is a major complaint when students rent houses. They park on the street, in the yard — “and even park in your yard,” he said.

Loud partying is the other chief concern. Forest Hills doesn’t have its own police force. Instead, it hires an off-duty deputy to make rounds on weekend nights during the school year primarily as a deterrent against parties.

But students are prone to party any night of the week, not just weekends, Corwin said. Plus, the deputy isn’t always successful in enforcing the noise ordinance. Corwin said students will use their cell phones to text warnings to each other when the deputy is coming.

“Everyone runs to the car and gets in and they are gone,” Corwin said.

There is a shortage of rental property in the Cullowhee area, both for students and professors. That’s why Corwin doubts anyone will have trouble renting their house, even if they have to cater to families and professionals rather than groups of students.

Forest Hills is a tiny town of just one square mile that sits across the highway from the WCU campus. Many of the town residents are professors and university staff.

“We are a bedroom community to the university,” Corwin said.


What now?

The planning board has spent almost two years wrestling with the issue and crafting the language, along with a few other changes to the town’s zoning laws.

When Forest Hills became a town in the late 1990s, its primary intent was to preserve the neighborhood character. As a town, it could pass zoning laws that kept student condos and apartment complexes out of the community. It promptly got to work doing just that, but failed to address the issue of students renting houses.

Corwin said the town realized it could succumb to “studentification,” a takeoff on “gentrification.”

“We could become a whole multi-family community with students up and down the street,” Corwin said.

That could lead to lower property values for everyone.

Thus, the planning board embarked on the proposed occupancy limits.

“It’s setting out that these are the rules of a residential neighborhood and this is what our expectations are,” Corwin said.

Enforcement of the ordinance will be complaint-based and fall to the town’s volunteer zoning enforcement officer. The town has no paid workers.

The number of people living in a house is unlimited if they qualify as a family — which can include everyone from foster children to great-aunts. But a family must be a single house-keeping unit of a non-transient nature.

“Non-transient is the key factor because students are transient,” Corwin said.

Defining what qualified as a “family” was tricky in and of itself.

“We worked very hard to get a definition of ‘family’ so it would be defensible legally if it came to that,” Hancock said. “Legally, there is nothing that discriminates in any way.”

Such an ordinance is very common in college towns, Hancock said. Forest Hills’ planning board borrowed language from similar zoning laws in Boone and Chapel Hill.


Want to weigh in?

A public hearing on limiting the number of college students sharing a rental house will be held by the Forest Hills town council at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 5, at the Jackson County Recreation Center in Cullowhee. The hearing will also include other changes and updates to the town zoning ordinance.

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