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Editorial: Smaller lots can mean big problems for towns

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When a new subdivision was proposed last month in Whiteland, questions were raised about the costs that go with adding population.

The proposed Briar Hill subdivision, to be developed by Arbor Homes, would have included 60-foot-wide lots, with 15 feet between the houses. Other local governments, including the county, Franklin, Greenwood and Edinburgh, allow lot widths to be as small as 50 to 60 feet, which allows the house to be as small as 900 square feet and as close as 15 feet away from the home next door.

The smaller property sizes allow developers to build less-expensive homes for first-time buyers, which are the types of homes most in demand in the county, one developer said.

Developers are interested in smaller property sizes because there is a higher demand in Johnson County for homes that cost less than $225,000, Arbor Homes vice president of sales and marketing Steve Hatchel said.

But high-density developments can create a problem. While new housing attracts people, the benefit to the community can be outweighed by the governmental costs. Because the smaller lots and homes will have a lower assessed valuation, they might not create enough in property taxes to pay for the roads, police, schools and other services required to serve the additional residents.

Whiteland officials decided not to approve the needed rezoning for the subdivision. Without the smaller lots, Arbor Homes likely will not build on the land, Hatchel said.

Local governments have allowed for these lot sizes for years, but developers rarely built subdivisions with properties that small, local officials said. Greenwood’s zoning was changed in the 1980s to allow for lots as small as 55 feet, and one subdivision built about 10 years ago, Timber Valley, has lots that size, planning director Ed Ferguson said.

Franklin’s zoning that allows 50-foot-wide lots, but no subdivisions have been built with lots that small, Franklin senior planner Joanna Myers said.

Arbor Homes is constructing two subdivisions in the county, Honey Creek Meadows and The Enclave, that will have lot sizes between 50 and 60 feet wide.

Hatchel said developers are looking at the market and seeing that the county can support more homes for first-time buyers but not homes costing more than $250,000. The number of residents looking to buy a home for less than $225,000 is larger than the one looking for homes above that price point, he said. Builders don’t want to construct a subdivision of high-priced homes if no one will buy them, he said.

While there is a need for smaller homes for first-time homebuyers, there also is a need for slightly larger homes for move-up buyers.

But given the associated governmental costs for smaller lots, Whiteland made the right decision to move slowly on the issue by saying no for now.

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