Tiny homes get a big boost from El Paso County

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Although the largest manufacturer of tiny homes in the United States, Tumbleweed Tiny House Company, is located in Colorado Springs, purchasers of these trendy housing alternatives have few places in the region to park them.

Tumbleweed is riding a rising tide of tiny house popularity. The company has grown substantially since it moved all of its operations to Colorado Springs three years ago and is poised for even greater growth. But for that to happen, legislators are going to have to legalize tiny house living.

Some Colorado communities, including Walsenburg, Park County and Durango, have modified code provisions to allow tiny homes or are considering doing so.

In December, El Paso County commissioners enacted some of the most progressive tiny home provisions in the country.

“We got our government out of the way so the industry can actually do something,” Commissioner Stan VanderWerf said. “In a single vote, we’re now the national leaders of all counties in the United States for allowed use of tiny homes.

“We’ve even surpassed communities in Oregon, where tiny homes were invented.”

The regulations

The commissioners voted to allow tiny homes in agricultural districts, on some residential lots and in recreational vehicle parks in unincorporated areas of the county. Before then, they were classified as RVs and were allowed within RV parks, but only for a limited amount of time. As RVs, they weren’t eligible for building permits or allowed as dwelling units on individual lots or parcels.

The new regulations differentiate tiny houses from RVs and allow owners to park and occupy their tiny homes permanently in zoning districts that permit mobile homes.

The structures must meet nationally recognized construction standards or be certified by a professional structural engineer, must have wheels and hitching equipment removed or covered, and must pay standard fees such as septic permits. They also must comply with standards for exterior finishes, which must give them the appearance of single-family homes.

Tiny home owners will pay $100 over and above the $147 fee for planning department review of single-family home site plans.

According to Project Manager/Planner II Nina Ruiz with the El Paso County Planning and Community Development Department, that’s because reviews of tiny house site plans are likely to take more time.

Neither Colorado Springs nor Manitou Springs has regulations specifically regarding tiny homes. Instead, as in many other jurisdictions and the state as a whole, these structures are treated as RVs.

But tiny homes have been touted as a tool to provide desperately needed affordable housing, and they are popular with everyone from recent college graduates to retirees wanting to downsize. Residents are pressing governing bodies in Colorado Springs and Manitou to consider changing their codes to permit them.

“We did receive a copy of what El Paso County adopted,” Colorado Springs Planning and Development Director Peter Wysocki said. “We are in the exploratory stages of whether or not the city should allow tiny homes separate from RV parks. We are reviewing other communities in Colorado and other states to see if there is opportunity for us to change our code.”

Regulations for tiny homes could be included in code sections governing Accessory Dwelling Units, planning-speak for secondary structures on lots in districts that are zoned for multifamily housing. These units are not permitted in single-family residential districts.

Many newer planned communities prohibit accessory dwelling units, Wysocki said, although they may be zoned appropriately. He said he would like to have a preliminary draft ordinance written by early summer, but something done by this fall “would be a more reasonable time frame.”

When Colorado Springs city councilors are presented with an ordinance, “we will try to be as close as possible to the county,” Wysocki said.

“There are benefits to having one not being more restrictive than the other.”

In Manitou Springs, where city employees, teachers, artists and others are being priced out of the housing and rental markets, members of the Housing Advisory Board and city council have been mulling the possible role of tiny homes.

“Manitou Springs does not have a maximum or minimum size for homes, meaning someone can have a 200-square-foot home or a 6,000-square-foot home just so long as the structure meets the setbacks and so forth,” Manitou Springs Planning Director Wade Burkholder said in an email.

“However, residences need to be placed on permanent foundations and hooked up to city utilities per Municipal Code,” Burkholder said, adding tiny homes on wheels can be located only within trailer parks.

“I’m not sure when or what recommendation will be forwarded from the Housing Advisory Board regarding this issue,” he said.

Tiny home giant

The new regulations “are a huge win for El Paso County,” said Justin Hall, HR manager and spokesman for Tumbleweed Tiny House Company. At the county’s invitation, representatives from the company sat on a committee that helped craft the new rules.

The company representatives explained how the industry works and informed the commissioners about standards formulated by the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association. The resulting ordinance “was thought out from all sides and is now going out to the region, state and nation as a model,” he said.

The new regulations are, of course, applauded at Tumbleweed, which prides itself as an industry pioneer.

“Tumbleweed is known for being first in a lot of areas — we were the first to produce a green-certified tiny house and the first to offer financing” for customers, Hall said.

Founded in 1999, the company originally focused on education and developed plans, books and DVDs for do-it-yourselfers who wanted to build their own tiny homes.

“Through experience and customers’ requests, we got into building tiny homes for them,” Hall said. “We were building one or two units a month three years ago. Now we’re building 15 units a month, and we’re on pace to build 20 units a month. Our staff then was 11; now we’re close to 100. We see no slowing down.”

That rapid growth caused some financial difficulties, Tumbleweed Creative Services Specialist Shawna Lytle said.

“It was hard to scale properly,” Lytle said.

The company moved its headquarters from Sonoma, Calif., to Colorado Springs, where the factory was already located.

“We were featured on an episode of CNBC’s The Profit,” Hall said. After that, Marcus Lemonis, host of the show on which companies pitch their businesses, invested in Tumbleweed and helped streamline its operations.

Lemonis plans to add Tumbleweed tiny houses to the inventory at his Camping World SuperCenters. With more than 100 SuperCenters nationwide, Camping World is the world’s largest retailer of recreational vehicles.

Other Colorado tiny home companies also are seeing rapid growth.

Sprout Tiny Homes of Pueblo contracted with Aspen Skiing Co. in June to deploy 40 commercial-grade, energy-efficient tiny homes in Basalt to meet the demand for affordable employee housing. The company will also supply tiny homes for a planned 200-unit development, River View at Cleora, in Salida and is developing a 33-unit tiny home community in Walsenburg.

Sprout recently purchased the assets of EcoCabins, a Colorado Springs-based company.

“We’re going to see some really amazing things in the future,” said Lytle of Tumbleweed. “Hopefully, communities will catch up with that growth.”

For that to happen, “there needs to be a change in the mindset and in what our community is comfortable with, particularly in single-family residential areas,” Wysocki said.

“It really is going to come down to the citizens communicating with legislators to make sure they know it’s a value to them,” Hall said.

If that happens, he added, “I can see Colorado Springs being a progressive leader.”