16,000 square foot requirement seen as outdated

As Dare County municipalities struggle to achieve the right balance when it comes to regulating “mega-mansions,” the Nags Head Commissioners on June 5 directed town staff to move toward eliminating an old zoning restriction that sets out lot size requirements for large single-family dwellings.

      Commissioner Michael Siers brought the issue to the board last month, suggesting that the town do away with the requirement that homes of 3,500 square feet or larger be built on a lot of at least 16,000 square feet. Instead, he recommended it rely on setback and septic requirements already in place to regulate the size of structures. This would allow property owners who met other necessary zoning requirements to build homes of 3,500 regardless of lot size.

      The lot size requirement was initially adopted in an effort to curb the number of mega-mansions going up along the town’s oceanfront beginning in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Commissioner Webb Fuller, who served as town manager at the time, acknowledged the lot limitations served their purpose at that particular time, but were now obsolete.

      The lot size mandate “was a board-driven initiative that was pushed by some citizenry because of the mega-mansions that were being built on the oceanfront,” said Fuller during the board’s June 5 meeting. “It has served its useful life. There is no need to have it.”

      The town’s zoning ordinance defines large dwelling units as those with 3,500 square feet of habitable floor area, including any accessory dwellings. Homes over that threshold must reach certain architectural standards, but cannot exceed 5,000 square feet.

      Nags Head, like others municipalities in Dare County, has found itself wrestling with how to regulate large rental properties – particularly after the N.C. General Assembly in 2015 revoked the right of municipalities to limit the number of bedrooms in a residence.

      The 16,000-square-foot lot requirement was one of the town’s first attempts at regulating mega-houses. It then imposed limitations on bedrooms until the N.C. General Assembly removed that as an option. Finally, Nags Head settled on its current maximum square footage requirement of 5,000.

      “We should probably let the maximum threshold apply right now,” asserted Commissioner Renee Cahoon, who noted that the majority of lots in town are 15,000 square feet. “All we are doing right now is penalizing people in permanent neighborhoods with this restriction. The 16,000-square-foot requirement really doesn’t do anything other than impede. If our goal is to restrict big houses, let’s do it by square footage, not the size of the lot.”

      Dare County municipalities have tackled the challenge of regulating large homes in a variety of ways. Most recently, the Southern Shores Town Council voted to limit occupancy and septic capacity to 14 occupants. The move was in response to two 12-bedroom rental houses SAGA Realty plans to build on the town’s oceanfront that are designed for occupancy by 24 people.

      Southern Shores enforces a town-wide cap of 6,000-square feet of habitable living space. Earlier this year, Duck adopted an ordinance that uses a tiered approach that regulates house size and septic capacity based on lot size. Houses are capped at 5,000 square feet on lot sizes of 15,999 to 19,999. On lots larger than that, homes can be between 7,000 and 9,000 square feet, depending on lot size, but must meet higher setback requirements.

      As for other towns, Kitty Hawk’s smaller lot sizes and 30% lot coverage limit already prohibit large homes from being built. And Kill Devil Hills has yet to set standards to limit the increasing sizes of residential structures in that community. In a recent town-wide survey conducted by the municipality, 81% of respondents indicated that the town should develop additional regulations to regulate those size limits.

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