Tiny problem: Plan to build tiny home park in Warner met with skepticism

  • Joesph Mendola of NAI Norwood Group stands at the site of the tiny mansion he's building on Poverty Plains Road in Warner on Wednesday. Elizabeth Frantz / Monitor staff

  • Joesph Mendola of NAI Norwood Group stands at the site of the tiny mansion he's building on Poverty Plains Road in Warner on Wednesday, May 9, 2018. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

  • The "Wind River Bungalow" from Wind River Tiny Homes. Developer Joe Mendola said the homes he wants to bring to Warner for a "tiny home park" would be similar to Wind River's units, but he faces zoning and definition questions from the town's land use board. Courtesy—Wind River Tiny Homes

  • A tiny home mansion Warner developer Joe Mendola is building on Poverty Plains Road in Warner is shown. Mendola is trying to bring a 13-unit tiny home park to Warner, but his proposal has been met with criticism and concern by some. Courtesy Joe Mendola

Monitor staff
Published: 5/10/2018 6:36:49 PM

A Warner developer is trying to bring tiny homes to a place where they’ve probably never been before in New Hampshire – together.

Joe Mendola of NAI Norwood Group has proposed a 13-unit tiny home “park” off Schoodac Road in Warner. It’s a concept unlike anything he, or other real estate experts, said they’ve heard in the state.

But it’s not going smoothly. The proposal started familiar conversations around what a tiny house is – and what it means to live in one – that the state is still trying to figure out.

“You know that old saying that pioneers got arrows in their back and the settlers made the money?” Mendola asked during a recent interview. “Consider me the pioneer.”

A home by any other name

Municipalities have struggled with allowing tiny homes, mostly because a definition for them doesn’t really exist.

Even the size of a tiny home varies. Some experts say a tiny house must be less than 400 square, others say anything less than 600 square feet fits the bill.

Other ideas – like a tiny home being cheaper than a traditional house, energy efficient, and mobile – are more universal.

There’s also the sense that tiny homes are a millennial-driven movement, Mendola said. Unable to afford the current housing market and always on the move for their next job, millennials are looking for a house they can start their lives in – and take across the country for a new job offer.

One of the tiny home builders Mendola said he’ll be looking to partner with, Clayton Homes, prices its tiny homes from around $121,000 to $129,000, according to its website.

In contrast, the New Hampshire Real Estate Association’s website says the median sales price for a home in Merrimack County is $259,450, up nine percent from last April.

A nebulous definition makes regulating and taxing these homes difficult. The American Tiny House Association notes New Hampshire has standards for park model RVs and accessory-dwelling units. But tiny homes are neither – they’re meant to be mobile and lived in year-round, unlike accessory dwelling units and RVs, Mendola said.

In Warner, the question has become whether one can count tiny homes, lacking any other formal definition, as manufactured housing. It’s a question that’s kept Mendola’s application before the Warner Zoning Board of Adjustment since March.

To Mendola, the two are one and the same; Warner’s zoning defines manufactured housing as any structure “transportable in one or more sections” that is 320 square feet when erected and is built on a permanent chassis.

They must meet Department of Housing and Urban Development construction and safety standards, and they can only be located in a park – which is allowed in the Schoodac Road property’s zoning. Mendola said he plans to operate his park like a traditional manufactured home park; residents will own their homes and rent land from him.

“Tiny home is a nomenclature,” he said during a recent interview. “What’s happening is, we gotta stop talking about tiny homes. There’s no zoning for it.”

‘Something different’

The Warner zoning board – which is tasked with deciding whether Mendola’s application should be granted a site size variance – seemed to think differently during its Wednesday meeting.

“I think you could put a trailer park in there if you wanted to,” said ZBA member Beverly Howe. “But this is something different.”

“We understand what you’re asking for, ” said ZBA member Sam Bower, “but this new idea of a tiny home is different. There’s this idea that people want to build them in their backyard and scoot around the country and pull up wherever.”

Later, Bower suggested a way to cut through the confusion.

“In the application, it’s stated that the term ‘tiny house’ is interchangable with the town’s definition of manufactured housing,” he said. “Due to the confusion, the applicant should just change the wording, that’s what I would say.”

But Mendola was reluctant to do that; though he views “tiny homes” as fitting within the manufactured housing legal definition, he said the two terms call to mind different images.

“The mindset around manufactured housing speaks to a traditional mobile home,” he said. “I’m just trying to be transparent, it’s not a mobile home, what’s going to go there is a tiny home.”

Ultimately, the ZBA closed its public hearing on the application Wednesday night and plans to continue deliberations on May 29. But not before several residents expressed distrust of the idea.

“The whole idea of a tiny house is such a coy thing,” Lucinda McQueen said. “You say tiny houses are for millennials – I think it’s a trailer park, plain and simple. It’s bull.”

Abutter Griffin Manning questioned whether tiny homes were a fad – and what would happen to the park if that were the case.

“The 100 acres of land I own does allow for mercantile use ... but what you can do and should do are two different things,” he said. “If this tiny house thing burns out, you’re going to have to fill those lots with something.”

‘Like-minded people’

Though tiny homes might be gaining in popularity, clusters of them in New Hampshire seem to be scarce.

Mike Dellamente of the Green Alliance, an organization that connects sustainable contractors and businesses with home buyers, said there is a big demand for sustainable housing amenities – solar panels, LED lights and high-efficiency appliances.

Tiny homes are still pretty niche, he said. “I think the market is growing,” he said. “I think it’s still more about the individual and not a community. Tiny homes check boxes people are interested in, but I don’t think it’s about finding a place with like-minded people.”

But that may change due to demand, said Craig Foley, founder of Sustainable Real Estate Consulting Services. He’s based out of Boston, where tiny homes and their “condo equivalent,” micro-apartments, are becoming a bigger part of the zoning conversation as the area becomes more densely populated and expensive.

“Affordability is a big, big problem,” he said. “From the millennial POV, they can see value in this kind of housing.”

(Caitlin Andrews can be reached at 369-3309, candrews@cmonitor.com or on Twitter at @ActualCAndrews.)

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