Council approves change for fraternal group living, leaving one developer hanging

BY NICK HASSETT | APRIL 24, 2013 5:00 AM

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The Iowa City City Council approved a change for group housing rules in hopes to help neighborhood stabilization, but one fraternity developer may be left in the dust.

The measure amends the city zoning code to better define rooming-house cooperatives, such as fraternities and sororities. The amendment allows such group housing to exist within RNS-20 zoned areas, used for older neighborhoods in proximity the University of Iowa campus, but it also spells out rules and limits on such housing.

Existing fraternities and sororities will be grandfathered in under the new ordinance.

Tuesday’s reading was the first consideration of the ordinance, which passed unanimously, 7-0. An ordinance requires three readings to pass into law.

Karen Howard, an associate city planner, said that prior to this amendment, density standards for multifamily uses were not being applied to group-living houses in the same area.

“There was a mismatch between the density standards that may cause problems with new standards because of the inconsistency,” she said.

Howard said in a memo to the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission that inconsistency can “reduce the effectiveness of the city’s neighborhood-stabilization efforts.” She said it is important new rooming houses, fraternities, and sororities are located and designed in a mannerĀ  “compatible with the surrounding neighborhood.”

The Planning and Zoning Commission recommended approval of the measure on a 7-0 vote at its March 21 meeting.

However, a developer of a new fraternity who hoped to get an exception was denied at the meeting.

Justin Mulford, a prospective developer of a fraternity on the northeast corner of Governor and Burlington Streets, said he could comply with all of the standards from the city except a density reduction.

“The new standards would change the building and make it not feasible to build,” he said. “[It would be] taking the number of roomers from 18 down to 13.”

Mulford said there were options available for neighbors that have problems with fraternities or sororities.

“Right now, those that would be affiliated with the university are required to provide a live-in adult, so if there’s a problem, there’s a responsible adult on the property,” he said. “Any neighbor can call that person at any time with problems they’re having.”

However, councilors said without a building permit or a building-site approval for Mulford’s development showing that construction is underway, they could not issue an exemption.

“We have to have some definitive line in place,” Councilor Susan Mims said. “But that has not been met in this case.”

Mims said officials must focus on the bigger picture.

“For the developer, it’ll have a negative impact, but in terms of neighborhood stabilization, we’ve made a lot of progress, and we need to continue in that direction,” she said.

Mayor Matt Hayek said the ordinance was consistent with other council efforts.

“Density matters, and with respects to other measures we’ve taken, this plugs up a gap,” he said. “There’s still the special exception route [for the developer].”

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