Steilacoom’s “tiny house” couple have come up against town officials again and lost.
The Town Council denied an appeal filed by Peter and Shannon Johnson, who challenged an August administrative decision that ruled the couple’s 200-square-foot home could not be used as a permanent residence.
Acting as judges Tuesday night, council members unanimously upheld Town Administrator Paul Loveless’ position that the couple’s home is considered a recreational vehicle and as such the couple can’t live in it full time. Town regulations do not allow people to permanently live in an RV.
The decision came after two hours of a quasi-judicial hearing where the Johnsons argued the town’s code doesn’t exclusively state it is illegal to use an RV as a place to eat, sleep or live.
Following the ruling, the Johnsons said they were disappointed, but not surprised.
“We could pretty much tell they were going to deny it,” Peter Johnson said.
The couple said the impression they got from town officials leading up to the hearing is “this is how it’s been, this is how it’s going to be,” Shannon Johnson said.
Peter Johnson said he was frustrated that Mayor Ron Lucas, acting as the hearing’s facilitator, repeatedly shot down Johnson’s attempt to argue his case based on a proposed change to town code.
That change, recommended by the town planning commission, would further restrict RV use by limiting how long people can stay in RVs. Peter Johnson questioned the necessity of the stepped-up restrictions if town code, as city officials claim, already prohibits living in an RV.
“I believe that the act of looking at new ordinances confirms the ordinances don’t exist as they were enforced,” he argued.
Lucas said the council can’t consider a “hypothetical” code change that may or may not pass. The council could only consider regulations currently in place, Lucas said.
Town Attorney Larry Hoffman argued the Johnsons knew they were wading into a gray area of zoning regulations before they moved into the tiny house Peter Johnson built on a flatbed trailer.
He cited email communication between Peter Johnson and town planner Doug Fortner in which Fortner told him the town did not have regulations specific to tiny houses.
Fortner referred to minimum square footage requirements in the International Residential Building Code that require a home to have at least 120 square feet of habitable space, a second room with a minimum of 70 square feet and a minimum height of 7 feet.
Fortner also noted if the couple wanted to build a secondary structure on their property, known as an accessory dwelling unit, it would have to be a minimum 320 square feet. The town allows these structures on lots with a minimum of 9,600 square feet in some residential areas.
The Johnsons’ tiny house, which sits on a 120-square-foot trailer base and is estimated to be a total of 200 square feet, doesn’t meet the building size minimums. The Johnsons’ property on First Street also is not eligible for an accessory dwelling unit because the lot is too small.
The couple moved into the tiny home in March 2015 after placing it next to a two-bedroom house they own. Peter Johnson’s sister lives in the 1,160-square-foot house.
“We’re fighting to stay in our tiny house, not so we can be part of this tiny house movement, but so we can stay in this town because we love it here and we want to be here,” Peter Johnson said.
The home landed on the town’s radar this summer after someone complained, according to administrator Loveless.
It garnered more attention after the Johnsons spoke at a planning commission hearing and asked the commission to consider crafting regulations to allow tiny homes. The couple attended the hearing after Loveless told them the commission was considering the RV restrictions.
The couple don’t consider their home an RV, but have been forced to defend it as such because town officials view it as one.
The Johnsons said Tuesday night they would consult an attorney about whether to appeal the council’s decision to Pierce County Superior Court.
Town officials have not set a move-out date, but agreed to work with the couple. They agreed not to impose fines against the Johnsons, which could reach $1,000 a day, unless the couple fails to move out by the yet-to-be determined date.