KANSAS CITY, Mo. — When Lauren Thompson and her husband, Matt Sterling, decided to put down roots and start a family, the historic Westside neighborhood of Kansas City, Missouri, was their first choice.
They were drawn to the economic and cultural diversity as well as the mix of younger and older residents.
"This is a good cross section of Kansas City, and it's a wonderful place to live," Sterling said.
Their house, where they've lived for six years, is next to an empty 25-foot-wide lot. Its owner submitted development plans to the city in February.
"That's when we finally started to get an idea of what was going to be built next to us, and that's when we started getting concerned," Thompson said.
An engineer examined the plans for a small house the lot owner wanted to build next door.
"That report came back saying, yes, you guys have some reasons to be concerned about your foundation if they build this close to your house," Thompson said.
Sterling began poring over city code to determine whether or not the proposed construction was allowed.
That's where the story gets complicated.
If lots are consolidated, there's a rule for how wide they must be if the owner decides to split the property back up, which is the case for the lot next to the Sterling and Thompson home.
Sterling maintains the code requires the lot to be at least 30 feet wide for a house to be built, which makes the lot five too short.
"It was kind of perplexing to me that, well, it says you can't do this, but this is what's happening," Sterling said. "Why?"
City staff has interpreted the code differently, permitting construction on 25-foot lots. They believe those lots were legal, but now they're suggesting an update to an existing ordinance that would clarify the rules.
The ordinance was a hot topic for debate Wednesday at City Hall with homeowners from the west and east side offering testimony.
"It's going to have a tremendous impact on over 22,000 properties," Lisa Briscoe of the Historic Kansas City Foundation said, urging council members to hold off on voting until the issue can be studied further.
Many shared concerns about the proximity of new structures built on 25-foot lots, especially since some existing homes were erected right on the property line. Thompson said that means a new house would be just 2 1/2 feet away.
Others are worried the smaller lot dimensions incentivize neighbors to sell their properties as tear downs.
"Will this open the floodgates for development that will change and alter the way we want Kansas City to look and feel?" Santa Fe Neighborhood Association President Marquita Taylor asked.
Advocates for the ordinance change pointed out it would facilitate infill development by utilizing vacant lots all over the city, especially in the urban core.
The KCMO Planning and Development Department expects to maintain the character of neighborhoods by encouraging single-family homes to be built, thus decreasing the risk of rezoning for condos or apartment buildings.
Douglas Stockman, an architect who lives across the street from Thompson and Sterling, told the council that density is a good thing for the tax base while fostering a sense of community.
"We chose this neighborhood because of the fabric, because there are 25-foot lots," said Stockman, who proposed home next to Thompson and Sterling. "We used to joke about hearing our neighbor's phone ring occasionally. We thought that was wonderful. We want to see more of that happen."
Although the battle started with the couple's home, Sterling and Thompson said the fight has far broader implications.
"I think what matters is that this impacts the entire city, and that's what I hope the council thinks about, is the impact on the entire city — not one case, not one person, but everyone," Sterling said.
Mayor Elect Quinton Lucas suggested holding the ordinance so city staff can study the impacts on different neighborhoods. The Planning and Zoning Committee will take up the issue again at its meeting on Sept. 11.