The owners of a 196-square-foot tiny house in Alna may pursue a petition after learning the town considers the structure illegal.
Anthony Brewer and Alexandria Pierce attended a meeting of the Alna Planning Board to seek a variance for their house July 2.
The house does not meet a requirement for minimum square footage in the town’s building code ordinance. State law does not allow for a variance, or exception, according to town officials.
According to the town’s building code ordinance, “No dwelling unit shall be constructed, added to, or replaced that encloses less than 600 square feet of living space.”
Brewer described the wooden structure as a “camper.”
“It’s portable and on a trailer,” he said.
The couple started to build the house three years ago and finished it a year ago, he said.
Alna Code Enforcement Officer Tom McKenzie informed the couple by phone about two weeks before the meeting that the house does not meet the minimum square footage for a dwelling.
The couple got on the board’s July 2 agenda to apply for a variance.
“The long and short of it is – a variance isn’t possible. You’re not going to get one,” said Alna Second Selectman Doug Baston, a former chair of the planning board who was present at the meeting. “Under the state of Maine law, you can’t create your own hardship, and there really isn’t any hardship here. You could have built a bigger house if you wanted to.”
Brewer asked why he cannot get a variance when other towns around Alna have tiny houses. In response, Baston said other towns may have amended their ordinances.
“Shouldn’t Alna be updating its ordinance at some point to conform with kind of the standard?” Brewer said.
Later in the discussion, Brewer said, “It’s becoming more of a standard in this state and other states. I’m not the only person out there who owns a tiny house.”
Jeff Spinney, chair of the planning board, acknowledged and agreed with this statement.
Brewer said the previous code enforcement officer told him he could build a tiny house. When planning board member Peter Tischbein asked if Brewer had proof, Brewer said he did not because he was told over the phone.
“He told us since it was on a trailer we did not have to pull permits, and there was nothing keeping us from building it,” Brewer said.
Later, Brewer asked why the tiny house has become an issue now when he started building it three years ago.
Some of the members of the planning board, such as Spinney and Tischbein, said they only discovered recently that the house had been built.
Baston said he had known about the tiny house.
“I’ve known about it and kind of looked the other way because I was hoping it was a passing thing, but it’s an illegal structure and you can’t live in it,” Baston said.
Initially, Baston believed people were living in the tiny house. He apologized when Brewer told him otherwise.
“No one’s living in it. It’s completely empty, unhooked, sitting in my driveway. No one has lived in it for three years,” Brewer said.
The board told the couple they could start a petition to change the building code ordinance to allow tiny houses.
If they collect enough signatures, they could give the petition to the selectmen, who would delegate the work of amending the ordinance to the planning board. After the board developed an amended ordinance, it would be voted on at a special town meeting or the annual town meeting.
“It’s not that we’re overly regulating you. It’s just the reality at the moment,” Tischbein said of the current ordinance.
Brewer seemed interested in starting a petition and believed he could find people to support the amendment.
Near the end of the discussion, Brewer asked if he could build about 400 square feet onto the tiny house to come into compliance.
The board agreed that he could go this route, and even suggested it might take less time than a petition and vote.
During a phone interview the afternoon of Monday, July 8, Brewer said, “We have thought about it more, and we’re more than likely not going to add onto it.”
“We are probably leaning more towards the petition route at this point. It defeats the purpose of having a tiny house on wheels if you have to permanently add onto it,” Brewer said.
In an interview outside the meeting, Pierce noted that tiny houses are more affordable for people to live in.
The couple currently lives at 1182 Alna Road, but the property where they want to place the tiny house does not have a box number yet, Brewer said. It is the next property on the right going toward Wiscasset.
They plan to either live in the house or rent it out.