Commissions Negotiating On Basement Regulations

October 13, 2009

Absolutely no homeowners in West University Place may build indoor swimming pools in their basements.

This is one point of agreement between two city commissions tasked with creating regulations for basements in West U. But members of the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission and the Building and Standards Commission will meet in the coming weeks to smooth out disagreements on other regulations for subterranean structures.

Questions they must iron out include how large basements can be, where they can be situated on the lot, how homeowners can use the space, and whether a basement should count towards the home’s overall size limit.

The two commissions started working on basement regulations in the summer of 2008 when City Planner Debbie Scarcella told them that three West U homeowners had applied for permits to build basements. During construction for one basement on Lake Street, the contractor excavated soil all the way to the adjacent property line.

While constructing this basement on Lake Street, contractors excavated soil right up to the neighbor's driveway.

While constructing this basement on Lake Street, contractors excavated soil right up to the neighbor's driveway.

“The neighbor was fearful that their driveway was going to cave in,” said PZC Vice Chair Bruce Frankel. “We felt like it needed to be addressed. It’s never been addressed because the thought was ‘Who in their right mind would build a basement in Houston, Texas?'”

Some West U homes within the 100-year flood plain cannot have basements in accordance with the rules of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. But there are no existing restrictions for the remainder of West U, which sits in the 500-year flood plain.

The commissions approached the city council in January 2009 to ask whether the city should prohibit basements entirely or just regulate them. With homeowners’ property rights in mind, the council voted to allow people to build basements and asked the commissions to work on regulations.

Since then, the BSC worked on setting construction regulations: rules for drainage systems, flood protection measures, proper techniques to construct the foundation and walls, and other building issues. The commission plans to return to the issue on Oct. 15 during its monthly meeting.

“This is something we see as a trend coming along,” said BSC Chair Bryant Slimp. “We don’t want situations coming up that could have been mitigated or prevented.”

Meanwhile, the PZC tackled questions about the placement of basements on lots, how they should conform to building setback rules and other zoning issues. The commission talked about the status of basement regulations at its Oct. 8 meeting.

“To me, it’s very irrelevant to talk about basements,” said new commission member Bob Higley. Other members agreed that the new regulations may have limited impact, only affecting residents who are building new homes in the city.

“The dynamic is that property values are so high,” said ZPC Member Dick Yehle. People want to maximize the square footage of their properties.

Some questions about basements in West U enter the purview of both commissions. For example, will the size of a basement be limited to the footprint of the house, or can it extend into the yard? Do basements count towards the city’s size limit for new construction? Will homeowners be allowed to install plumbing?

Right now, the two commissions disagree on about seven issues, according to a PZC document. Within the next week, the chairs and vice chairs of both groups will meet and try to iron out these details.

Eventually, when the two commissions reach a consensus, they will draft an ordinance and take it to the city council for feedback.

“It’s just a slow process,” Slimp said. “We’re trying to look at it from every angle we can, to make sure it’s as fair as we can get.”

InstantNewsWestu Staff

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