Group Dwelling Is Creative Approach To Steep Sites, Says Architect Milne

Although group dwelling permits have gotten a bad reputation lately, they are a creative way to approach construction on steep sites like the proposed Bordeaux Mountain Estates, according to project architect Michael Milne of Barefoot Architect Inc.

Department of Planning and Natural Resources officials recently approved property owners Eric Munson and Scott Humphrey’s requested group dwelling permit to construct 16 four-bedroom units on their 5.623-acre Estate Bordeaux site.

The group dwelling permit for the Bordeaux development allows the property owners to build on only 20 percent of their land, Milne explained.

“Instead of allowing half-acre subdivisions which would destroy 80 percent of the site, we are proposing to cluster the development,” said Milne. “Our overall plan — including parking, walkways, retainings, accessory structures, the pool — it all fits on less than 20 percent of the entire site.”

Preserving 80 Percent of Site
“We are preserving 80 percent of our site and, as I said in the public hearing, we’re willing to put that into written form,” Milne continued.
Bordeaux Mountain Estates’ group dwelling permit is an alternative to the typical half-acre development sites, the architect added.

“In  my mind we have a problem with poor development on St. John with the typical half-acre subdivisions being a matter right,” said Milne. “Instead of taking the easy way out, I have clients who would like to do something better than the norm.”

“Half-acre subdivisions require roads and individual driveways and each project doesn’t require further review,” Milne continued. “You don’t have the oversight of a comprehensive plan — it’s piecemeal.”

The developers revised their site plan in response to constructive criticism from the public and DPNR, according to Milne, who added that the new plans include the preservation of a Bulletwood tree.

What Milne is proposing is legal and property owners have every right to develop their land, explained the architect.

Property Owners’ Rights
“What we are doing is legal — these are our property rights,” said Milne. “We are doing something beyond the norm but it is reasonable to expect that we can develop our land. That is an expectation that all landowners have as a right.”

While some Bordeaux residents have alleged that the development will not fit in with the nature of the neighborhood — a requirement for group dwelling permit approval — that is not the case, according to Milne.

“There are existing duplexes and I know of a number of houses that have more than two dwellings per lot,” he said. “So if the neighborhood is made up of houses on half-acre lots with two dwellings on them of comparable size and height, I think we are blending in with the neighborhood.”

“And we are one of the few spaces that is paved and accessible,” Milne added.

Fits In with Topography
The development plan is a reflection of the steepness of the site, the architect continued.

“It’s a very steep site, I’m not denying that,” said Milne. “We’ve made our footprint very slight to fit in with that slope. It is aligned with the topography  and has a slim footprint.”

Simply because the site is steep, doesn’t mean the lot is unbuildable, explained Milne.

“It’s a steep slope but it’s a viable lot, just like all the neighbors thought their sites were,” he said. “I see it as a challenge. Given time and money, we can build on anything.”

“We’ve run out of easy sites on this island and there are many lots even steeper than this,” the architect continued.
Munson, Humphrey and Milne have spent 30 months in the review process and are not proposing anything illegal, the architect said.

Difference Between Law and Opinion
“In my mind there are two sets of criteria for any permit approval — the legal requirements and one’s individual opinions on appropriateness,” said Milne. “I am required by law to comply with those governing codes and I am the first one to be concerned if someone is violating the law.”

Just because the development uses a group dwelling permit doesn’t mean it is a poorly planned project, the architect explained.

“Because someone who didn’t care came along and took advantage of the group dwelling permit, it has gotten a bad reputation,” Milne said. “We have to find a balance.”

Balance Needed
Construction is going to continue on St. John, and the important thing is to find a balance, according to Milne.

“This is not the only approach, it’s a better approach,” he said. “I am still looking for feedback. Anyone who has constructive criticism is invited to sit down and talk to us.”

“And not just about this development but for the whole island,” Milne continued. “The land is already out there and it’s going to be developed. As an island we need to figure out better ways to develop on steep hillsides.”