Tiny House

This 2017 file photo shows a tiny house that was built by students from Brownstown campus of the Lancaster County Career and Technology Center. The photo was taken on the Willow Street campus of the CTC.

Tiny houses have gained popularity over the past few years, with help from shows like “Tiny House Nation.”

But figuring out how zoning laws and other regulations apply to the diminutive structures can pose a challenge for municipal officials

While the definition is flexible, a tiny house is generally thought of as a dwelling of 400 square feet or less. Some even come on wheels.

Their small size and potential portability has led local leaders to wonder how to regulate them.

In response, the Lancaster County Planning Commission created a planning tool designed to help municipalities address their concerns.

“What we've decided to do was to bring together some of the information and provide guidance for the municipalities,” said Dean Severson, director of community planning. But “it's not a model ordinance.”

The tool, a packet available on the planning commission's website at bit.ly/2tEObF1, provides a list of questions and topics for local zoning officials to consider when talking about tiny homes.

“Are you concerned about emergency response?” one question asks. (Tiny houses should have an address such as every other dwelling unit.)

Another asks if officials are concerned that a tiny house will devalue neighboring properties. (It suggests they could answer that question by considering whether existing accessory dwelling units have done so.)

One section points out that if a community already allows extraneous, additional housing units known as dawdy houses, granny flats, in-law units, ECHO housing or accessory dwellings, then it already permits some version of a tiny house. It asks whether officials would consider expanding their current ordinances if they already allow some form of tiny houses.

“There was just some reality that tiny homes were out there and that municipalities need to begin to address them,” senior planner Gwen Newell said.

The primary concern she heard from municipalities was about safety: Are the residents safe? And how would first responders access the homes in the event of an emergency? (If they meet building standards, tiny houses should be as safe to enter as any other modular home or RV.)

“It's like any new land use. Some were concerned; some were excited,” Newell said of officials. “They just wanted to gather more information.”

The tiny house tool is the first in a series of community planning tools the department will be rolling out. Severson said other tools potentially on the horizon include ones to address short-term rentals and medical marijuana facilities.

From the archives: More tiny house coverage