Walker County zoning agency discussing how to regulate tiny homes

A tiny home is located on Ford Street, Rossville, Ga.

ROCK SPRING, Ga. - Simple living doesn't come without a lot of long, dry meetings first.

Last week, the Walker County Planning Commission discussed how they should regulate tiny houses, units that offer a porch, a kitchen, a bathroom, a place to sleep and not much else.

During a Thursday work session, the commission settled on a few rules. A tiny house in Walker County should be no bigger than 500 square feet. It should sit on a permanent foundation, with an electric meter and a sewer line or septic tank.

Also, it should be restricted to specific zones in the county, all of them clustered together.

Said board member Jack Michaels: "I'd hate for someone to put one of these things next to my home."

The commission's decision Thursday night was just one step in a long process. They have to put their ideas into an ordinance and hold two public meetings to review it before they can vote on it. Commissioner Shannon Whitfield also has to hold two public meetings before he decides whether to adopt the ordinance.

So Thursday's ideas might not become law until July.

Whitfield asked the commission to review the rules for tiny houses at his Feb. 23 meeting. He believes small units have their place. But if they're not zoned into certain areas, he said, they can make the county look ugly.

Tiny houses are in vogue among those who crave minimalism. For people short on money, a tiny house is an affordable spot to hang their hats. For environmentalists, they leave a tiny carbon footprint. But for those in a planning and zoning office, they mean more to worry about.

Some board members said Thursday a collection of shanties could pop up in backyards. Or the structures could be abandoned, leaving county workers to clean up after them. Or they could simply be an excuse for residents to avoid paying taxes.

The houses have become more popular recently, as HGTV shows "Tiny House, Big Living" and "Tiny House Hunters" show their appeal in neat, high-definition, 20-minute segments.

"That drives some of this," board member Phillip Cantrell said. "But I think all of us are smart enough to know, living in that, I'm not sure my wife can get her shoes in there."

There are a different types of tiny homes. Some are, quite literally, small houses. Some look like houses but are on wheels and are legally treated as RVs. And in Walker County, permitting staff employee Kristy Parker said, some people are living in storage units and calling them homes.

Local governments across the country have created a patchwork of tiny home regulations. Catoosa County says the homes must be at least 700 square feet. Murray County requires at least 864 square feet in rural areas and 1,200 square feet in suburban areas. Gordon County restricts them to RV and campground sites.

David Brown, Walker County's director of codes, inspection and planning, said the homes should have room for some of the basic functions.

"Most of them don't have a stove," he said. "They don't have a washer and a dryer. They've got a microwave. They may or may not have a toilet."

And then there was the issue of paying Walker County government.

"How will the tax man go about handling these things?" Cantrell asked. "Is it just a free ride? You move into these things, you get to live free?"

"As of right now it is," Brown said. "As of right now."

"I may build me one," Cantrell said.

"There are no rules," Brown said. " Some of these have no serial numbers. They have no identification. The only way we can do it legally, when we do find them, is to give them a serial number and put them in the system, like a mobile home."

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or tjett@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.