Developers are flocking to The Nations to build residences, retail and restaurants as the neighborhood booms. Lizzy Alfs/The Tennessean
NASHVILLE — A Metro Codes Department blunder helped enable builders to construct at least 85 homes too close together in the booming Nations neighborhood in Nashville.
It means that all property owners or developers in violation of the zoning laws will have to come into compliance — even if it means home modifications paid for by home owners. The homes span multiple blocks in the rapidly gentrifying community and include some still under construction.
In some cases, the mess could require homeowners to foot the bill to address building code violations that include distance requirements aimed at addressing fire hazards and other safety issues.
Codes officials say the mistake arose, and continued, after a single building inspector signed off on permits — including setback rules — before the home’s exterior was finished. Builders are obligated to follow the limits, but they instead inched closer to property lines during the final phases of construction.
“It should have been caught,” said Bill Herbert, Metro Codes’ zoning administrator. “I think there’s mutual culpability on the builders themselves and on the building inspector.
“We’re not trying to hide anything. We’re putting it all out on the open. We see we’ve got a problem. The vast majority of the problem was caused by one inspector in one area.”
The situation comes as neighborhoods near Nashville’s urban core are undergoing a drastic transformation as developers increasingly tear down smaller, older homes to clear the way for new, oversized houses that push closer to property lines.
The codes department believes the error was isolated to The Nations, located in West Nashville north of Charlotte Avenue, but they can’t say for sure whether homes in other parts of Davidson County might also be out of compliance.
They plan to review other neighborhoods. The number of affected homes in The Nations could change as codes officials continue a neighborhood-wide analysis.
How the issue unfolded
Codes officials learned of the problem after a neighbor complained about the close proximity of two homes under construction at 5207 Indiana Ave. Codes officials placed a stop work order on the home.
The property owner has now filed for a variance with the Metro Board of Zoning Appeals, which is set to take up the case on Thursday.
The builder has proposed keeping the reduced distance between the two homes at 5207 Indiana Avenue, but making changes to the homes to comply with setbacks with neighbors.
Depending on the size of a lot, the side setbacks of home are typically supposed to be either 10 feet, five feet or three feet from the property line.
The trouble originated from the building permit process.
According to Herbert, the codes inspector in The Nations area signed off on setbacks and issued permits to the 85 homes after reviewing the site plan and completion of foundation work — but before homes were finished.
Homes complied with setback limits at this point, but when developers continued building out with walls and other “bump outs,” the structures exceeded the limits.
The pattern spread among multiple builders, but how many is still unclear as codes officials continue to catalog a list.
Metro Councilwoman Mary Carolyn Roberts, who represents the area, said developers in The Nations started to copy each other when it came to the shorter setbacks.
“Then come to find out none of them are legal,” she said.
“If there were a fire, God forbid, the city of Nashville would be on the hook,” she said. “This is a huge deal. This is not just a mistake. It’s a colossal mistake.
“Now that we’re aware of the problem, it’s come to a grinding halt, but I’m going to defend my constituents,” she said. “They’re going to have to retrofit every single one of those houses.”
Builders will be required to ‘fix’ the problem
The codes department is laying the groundwork to join the 85 properties together in a joint appeal to the Metro Board of Zoning Appeal to receive a variance that would allow the homes to remain as constructed.
This would allow the homes to keep current setbacks. The alternative would be to — literally — saw off the sides of non-compliant homes so that they fall within the setback limits.
But for safety reasons, the codes department plans to review the properties one-by-one to ensure compliance with building codes.
For some homes, no changes may be needed. But for others, required alterations could include the removal of a window or a door, an additional layer of drywall, or other changes.
“There’s going to have to be a fix,” Herbert said. “It’s very doable.
“What’s really, really important here is that buildings are safe and code compliant — building-code compliant.”
Even though the codes department issued permits for the homes, outgoing Metro Codes Director Terry Cobb said contractors are ultimately responsible to build correctly and would have to pay for the fixes.
“The permit itself states on its face what the minimum required setbacks are,” said Cobb, who is set to retire from the department in the spring. “The site plan demonstrates compliance with that when a permit is issued. So, that’s a condition of the permit. If they’re in non-compliance and violation of the code, it’s their responsibility to bring it into compliance.”
Follow Joey Garrison on Twitter: @joeygarrison