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Annapolis woman with big hopes for tiny house lobbies county to change code

Amanda Yeager
Contact Reporterayeager@capgaznews.com
Tiny house, big dreams: Annapolis woman lobbies for permission to live in a tiny home on wheels on rural land

Liza Roe's big wish is to live tiny.

The 24-year-old from Annapolis dreams of owning a tiny house. She's part of a growing movement of people who are drawn to the idea of a minimalist lifestyle that fits into 400 square feet or less.

But Anne Arundel County's zoning code hasn't yet made room for tiny house living in the way that Roe envisions. Because she wants to build her home on wheels instead of atop a dimunitive foundation, the law dictates that she can't just park the abode on a slice of rented rural land.

County code specifies that people cannot store or live in mobile homes unless they are located in a licensed mobile home park. The county also allows one mobile home to be parked on a residential property if it's been lawfully in use since 1966.

Roe recently asked the County Council to consider updating the law to broaden possibilities for aspiring tiny home owners.

"It's the only way I can see myself being a potential homeowner" in the near future, she told council members.

Roe's story is similar to that of many millennials, who studies show have been slow to embark upon homeownership, whether for economic reasons or a preference for the untethered renter's lifestyle.

A 2014 graduate of Salisbury University, she's lived in three places since earning her degree in communications with minors in psychology and outdoor education. The first was her parents' house for a short time after graduation. Then she and her former college roommate found a spot in the heart of downtown Annapolis.

"That was fun while it lasted, but then we were like, OK, let's find something cheaper," she said.

Now Roe, who works as a reservation specialist at Dogwood Acres Pet Retreat in Millersville, rents a condominium near Quiet Waters Park with her one-year-old rescue dog, Foster, and her roommate.

The space is neat and quiet, but it doesn't quite feel like home. In one corner of the sparely furnished common area, there are paintings propped against the room's bare white walls.

"That's stuff that I intended to hang up, but there's no point, because I'll be out of here in less than a year," Roe said. "It doesn't feel like home to me when I'm living in someone else's house."

The idea of buying a tiny house is appealing because it offers her a way to afford her own space without being tied down.

"I want to be a homeowner, but financially it just doesn't seem like a possibility," she said. "So I started looking into tiny houses more and more, and then I realized that I really like the idea of having it on wheels, not being grounded. The idea of having a house on a foundation scares me."

That mobility, however, could limit her options in Anne Arundel. And expanding the zoning code to allow tiny houses in RA-zoned rural residential land, as Roe hopes, could be complicated.

"I don't know how you classify (tiny homes) any different from a mobile home," said Councilman Jerry Walker, R-Crofton, whose south county district contains much of Anne Arundel's rural land. "You'd have to say all (rural residential) land could have one home and one mobile home. I'm sure that wouldn't go over well in south county."

Still, Walker said he's a fan of the show "Tiny House Nation" and thinks the concept is "pretty cool."

"I'm open to talking about it," he said of a potential zoning change.

Office of Planning and Zoning officials were not available to comment.

Tiny houses on wheels have been allowed as an accessory use in the county.

This spring, two Severn School graduates built their own tiny house on the school's campus as part of the Severn Fellows program, which supports seniors in developing a passion project. The house is displayed on the school's upper campus.

Councilman Chris Trumbauer, D-Annapolis, said he sees tiny houses as a way to lessen the county's environmental footprint.

"We're a dense county," he said. "The more environmentally friendly we can be, the better all of us get along and coexist as a community."

But, he added, "obviously, with anything having to do with land use, you need to be careful of unintended consequences. People have concerns about having mobile homes parked in their neighbor's front yard."

Trumbauer started learning about tiny houses two years ago after learning that a local summer camp had embarked on its own project to build one.

Campers at the Key School, led by staff from Annapolis-based nonprofit SustainaFest, built their first tiny house in the summer of 2014.

SustainaFest board chairman George Chmael said the project was intended to teach the middle schoolers about sustainable infrastructure and spark broader conversations on social issues like housing equity and homelessness. A young couple from Austin, Texas, bought the resulting tiny house, and a year later, SustainaFest started work on a second house, this time with campers from Indian Creek School in Crownsville.

Chmael said SustainaFest hoped to work with local nonprofits to donate the second home to a local veteran or someone who is homeless, but couldn't find a way to make it work under the zoning code. The house, which was only finished halfway, is sitting in storage today on the Indian Creek campus.

Chmael thinks tiny houses could be a way to reduce homelessness in Anne Arundel. He interested in finding a way to "reduce the obstacles for tiny houses being utilized as a potential solution to some of our pressing social needs in the county."

"We're very familiar with, and have an appreciation for, the arguments for and against (allowing tiny houses in more areas), but from our perspective the opportunity to solve social issues ought not to be blocked by the part that doesn't work," he said.

Roe said she expects a zoning change to accommodate tiny houses could take a while.

"I'm just trying to take the steps," she said. "I figure if I don't live here, then it might be an option for someone else. We are so close to the capital — being able to bring your house here would open a lot of doors for a lot of people."

In the meantime, she's planning for her future tiny house on a $70,000 budget.

Priorities for her custom-built dream home would include a bath tub, a full kitchen and stairs up to a sleeping loft so Foster could have free range of the house. She plans to maximize space by designing a storage area under the stairs and buying dual-function furniture, such as a sofa that doubles as a pullout bed.

The tiny house would include a compost toilet, water tank and solar panels, so that she could live off the grid.

Roe has already embraced a minimalist future by getting rid of most of her belongings.

"I've made several hundred trips to Goodwill at this point," she said. "The whole idea's pretty inspiring. I walk into my parents' house now and I'm like, oh my God, you have way too much stuff."

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