Developer rehabbed two houses on one lot, only to run afoul of zoning rules
When the two three-story houses on the lot at the southwest corner of Fremont Avenue South and Franklin Avenue West went up for sale in August 2001, Azzam Sabri bought them. The 90-year-old Lowry Hill homes were in bad shape.
Sabri poured $150,000 into the structures, fixing the foundation and the roofs, renovating the kitchens and the bathrooms, landscaping the exterior with wide brick pillars connected with ornate wrought iron. He even planted evergreens in the yard along Franklin.
When the renovation was completed, Sabri sought city occupancy permits on the two homes -- and was told he could only get one. Although the houses have sat on the same lot since 1911, Minneapolis zoning ordinances forbid having two homes on a single lot -- and Sabri's rehab removed a grandfathered exception.
That shocked Sabri, a Lowry Hill resident who has lived just a block away from his investment property for 27 years. His appeal to the Minneapolis Board of Adjustment and later the Minneapolis City Council failed.
Now, he has the dilemma of owning two homes, only one of which can be rented or sold.
“I thought the city would be giving me a letter of thanks for taking it upon myself to fix up those two houses,” Sabri said. “But what happened instead was that the city asked 'which house would you like to use?' The inspector said I can't use both; I could only use one house. There is no way I'd have bought them if I knew what was about to transpire.”
Hennepin County tax records show that the two-house 1309 Franklin property is assessed at $325,000 and pays $6,749.04 in property taxes annually. After renovation, they are most likely worth much more.
Asked about Sabri's predicament, City Councilmember Lisa Goodman (7th Ward), who represents the neighborhood, had no comment.
The city's interim Planning Director, Blake Graham said that because the houses predate the 1963 zoning ordinances, they received exceptions. However, those exemptions were lost when the homes were vacated for renovation.
Said Graham,”Mr. Sabri bought into the problem. It wasn't his action per se; it was his predecessors'.”
Graham, who has been working for the city for 30 years, said that this is not the first time such a predicament has occurred.
Graham said if the lot was big enough, Sabri could apply to have it subdivided to accommodate one home each. “But the property is not big enough for both houses, and that's why he has a problem,” Graham said. “The city is strict about that. The intent of the law is to prevent more than one house on a single zoning lot. The whole issue is about population, parking and structural density in the city.”
Sabri next step is a lawsuit. His attorney, Randall Tigue, who said he has won two similar cases against the city of Minneapolis, will seek judicial review of the city's denial.
“It makes absolutely no sense for him to have to tear down a house,” said Tigue. “The is depriving him of property without just compensation, which is in violation of state and federal constitutions.”
Resolving a case like this can take up to a year. Should Sabri lose in court, his only remaining options will be to tear down one of the homes or move it to another location.