Tiny Home; Big Problems

By on April 18, 2018

Warwick tables property owner’s request for

‘tiny house’ variance

The tiny home Warwick zoners have discussed is tucked behind a hillside on the Church Road farm of Matthew and Monica Gibbel. The structure doesn’t easily conform to Warwick’s zoning designations. Photo by Laura Knowles

By Laura Knowles

A tiny house in Warwick Township is turning into a big headache for a local couple.

Tucked behind a hillside on the Church Road farm of Matthew and Monica Gibbel, the diminutive house is just 24 feet long and 8 feet wide. It was built in the spring of 2016 when the Gibbels decided to get in on the tiny house trend.

They had the little house built on wheels, many yards from their own 100-year-old farmhouse in the agricultural zone. There are several other out-buildings on the property, including older barns and storage sheds that had been there for many years.

The tiny house is not quite a mobile home, nor does it fit the description of a dwelling, since the Gibbels do not live in it. Even though it’s the size of a shed, it doesn’t qualify as a storage shed either. It’s just a tiny house.

Since the Gibbels’ tiny house doesn’t fit into any zoning provided for in Warwick Township, the little house was the subject of a hearing by the Warwick Zoning Hearing Board on April 11, with Matthew Gibbel and his father John Gibbel seeking a special exception or variance to allow the tiny house to remain in its pretty spot by a weeping willow tree.

The proposal stymied the Zoning Hearing Board, who after deliberation, decided to continue the hearing and make a decision after their May 9 meeting. There were a number of issues that made this particular request complicated.

According to Tom Zorbaugh, zoning officer for Warwick Township, the first problem is that the Gibbels never got a permit to build the tiny house. Permits are required for any property construction or improvement, such as a shed or new roof.

Matthew Gibbel explained that he never realized a permit was needed. With several other existing structures on his property, he was not aware that he needed to apply for a permit to build the tiny house.

The bigger issue is that the tiny house does not meet criteria for a mobile home, since there is no intention to take it on the road, like an RV or mobile home. It does have wheels, but the Gibbels intended to keep it at its location some 1,000 feet from their own home. The tiny home is not a dwelling, since they do not reside there.

Here’s where it gets tricky. The Gibbels do rent the tiny house out to guests. They use websites like Airbnb to promote the tiny house as a quiet getaway and opportunity to check out life in a tiny house. It’s been so popular, that the tiny house is already booked well into the summer and fall. Guests have come from as far as London to much closer in south central Pennsylvania.

The Gibbels never intended to rent it out at first. They built the tiny house as a place for their own house guests to stay when they were visiting. Over time, a neighbor who admired it, asked about having friends stay when they were visiting the neighbors. As word spread that the Gibbels had a tiny house, they were encouraged to rent it out as a short-term rental.

“Most of our guests are visiting the Lancaster area and are usually couples,” says Matthew Gibbel. “They mainly are curious about what it’s like to live in a tiny house and could they do it. Many of them are considering building their own tiny home, because they want a simpler, eco-friendly lifestyle.”

That leads to another issue for zoners, since Warwick Township has no allowance for short term rentals of a weekend, week, two weeks or so. The township is currently looking into updating their ordinances, since Airbnb rentals and tiny homes are trends that do not fit into the township’s existing ordinances.

At the zoning hearing, John Gibbel and his son described the tiny house and how it was set up. It is built on a 24 foot by 8 foot trailer, so it can be moved, if needed. There is an 8×8 foot loft and a queen size bed. The lower level has a compact kitchen, dining and living area, with a small bathroom.

The bathroom originally had a composting toilet, which guests did not prefer. So Matthew Gibbel had a flushing toilet installed. The wastewater goes into a large tank and is not hooked up to the Gibbel’s sewage and wastewater system. The tank is pumped out regularly by a sewage disposal company.

There have been no complaints about the tiny house. The two neighbors who can see it have not expressed any concerns about the house, and one of them has sent guests to stay there.

“We have never stayed in it ourselves,” says Gibbel. “The tiny house life might be a little cramped for us and our kids. We just thought it would be something fun to do.”

The tiny house does bring in some extra income for the Gibbel family. Matthew Gibbel works in the banking and leasing business. The fields of the 55-acre property are farmed by Amish neighbors, with cattle and crops. One field serves as an extension of Shenk’s Berry Farm. The tiny house cannot be seen from the road, nestled in a valley far from view. The farm was originally part of the property owned by Matthew’s father John Gibbel.

The Gibbels’ attorney Melvin Hess noted that the property is large enough to be subdivided to allow for another structure or dwelling. However, the tiny size does not fit requirements for a dwelling.

Hess, who is well experienced in zoning matters, noted that the case is an interesting one, due to the current trends toward tiny homes and short term rentals through websites like Airbnb. The case also involves the rights of property owners to use their property as desired versus regulations by municipalities.

“It brings into question the regulatory power of government versus the rights of property owners in cases when the safety, health and welfare of citizens is not impacted,” said Hess.

As chairman Gary Lefever reported after deliberating with other zoning hearing board members, the tiny house creates a big dilemma for many reasons. It has already been built, without obtaining a permit. It’s not a trailer. It’s not transient lodging. It’s not a motel or a hotel. It’s not a mobile home. To make it more complex, it is being used for business purposes as a commercial activity.

“We have no definition for this and it is not listed as uses provided for in the ag zoning district,” he said. “We will need more time.”

In the meantime, the Gibbels are hoping the tiny house will be approved and they are prepared to accommodate any conditions required by the township.

When asked what they would do if it was not approved, Gibbel said that he would be disappointed, and would consider selling it or moving it elsewhere.

Laura Knowles is a freelance feature writer and regular contributor to the Record Express. She can be reached at lknowles21@gmail.com.

One Comment

  1. Sheri Pennell

    September 30, 2019 at 10:33 pm

    I’m wishing you the best.your tiny home is sweet.I would like to spend sometime there myself.

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