Garfield County paves way for tiny homes

Ryan Summerlin
Bill Nestman owns a tiny house south of Glenwood Srings up Four Mile Road.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent |

Garfield County commissioners approved land use and building code changes this week that remove barriers for tiny homes in unincorporated parts of the county.

Namely, they ended requirements that single-family “dwelling units” be at least 20 feet long by 20 feet wide.

Tiny homes are generally considered to be those that are less than 500 square feet, said Dave Pesnichak, senior county planner.

County staff has been receiving inquiries about tiny homes from people looking to buy land and build a home, but who can’t afford the cost of purchasing the land and then the cost of building a large home. Likewise, individuals have been looking to add tiny homes to their properties for aging parents or children who want to move out of the main house.

While that’s not necessarily a cheaper housing option, it is convenient because the tiny homes can be built offsite and moved onto the property, he said.

The requirement that dwelling units be at least 20-by-20 came about in the 1970s, the intention being to prevent single-wide trailers from proliferating, a move to protect property and home values, Pesnichak told commissioners.

Several tiny home projects are underway in Colorado. Aspen Skiing Co. placed six such houses in Basalt this winter as a test, Denver has a project for the homeless and Salida and Walsenburg have supported tiny home developments.

Pesnichak noted some trends that play into the increasing popularity of tiny homes. “A lot of people look at this as being a lifestyle choice, but there are some economics, as well.”

The average home size has been on the rise, growing by about 61 percent in the last few decades, he said. Now the average home is more than 2,600 square feet.

Meanwhile, home ownership has been declining, down to about 63 percent in 2015, the lowest in two decades. The main driver behind that drop is thought to be increasing housing costs, said Pesnichak.

Tiny homes can be built in different ways: on wheels, on chassis or with a foundation. However, the county’s codes are still going to require tiny homes to have a foundation unless they are in an RV park.

Even before these changes were made, a developer could propose a tiny homes community via a planned unit development that eliminated the minimum dwelling unit size, said Pesnichak.

Another necessary tweak to the building code was an allowance for a ladder to be used in the tiny homes, as most of them use a loft to maximize the small space.

Commissioners adopted updates to the International Code Council’s building code, which now allow ladders to be used to reach lofts and emergency exits to be built for the lofts.

Prior to that, a staircase was required instead of a ladder, taking up too much room in a tiny home.

In a 5-2 decision, the county planning commission also recommended striking the minimum dwelling unit size requirement.

Carbondale and Rifle responded with interest to the land use and building code changes, said Pesnichak. And Tim Cain, planner for New Castle, showed up in person to support the changes, adding that he’s heard from several individuals interested in the tiny house movement.

“We are interested in, obviously like the region, creating affordable/attainable housing,” Cain said. “This is one vehicle in which you could do that.”

Staff views the tiny homes not so much as an affordable housing solution but as “another tool in the kit,” giving people more housing options, said Pesnichak.

These changes to the land use and building codes will go into effect next month.

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