Tiny houses are trendy. And lots of people on the Maine coast are having a hard time finding a place to live. So Unity pharmacist and amateur real estate investor Chad Tozier is aiming to connect those dots by developing a small-house rental subdivision along Oak Hill Road in Swanville.
Tozier and his business partner, Derek Davis of Davis Dirt Works in Thorndike, last week received preliminary approval from Swanville town officials for the subdivision. They could have as many as 15 houses on the roughly 80-acre property, but are planning to start small, with five or six houses built by Amish-owned Backyard Buildings of Unity that will be installed on the property this summer.
“It’s crazy, but we’re doing it,” Tozier said of their plans. “I’m interested in things that are a little bit different and that are new, compared to what I’ve done in the past. And the tiny house movement has always really interested me. I think in the future, tiny houses will just be more and more common. People are becoming more aware of what’s important, and of efficient living. I think these houses fall into that quite well.”
The rectangular houses will measure 440 square feet, which includes 20 square feet taken up by the covered front porches on each structure. A prototype home is being built now in Unity, and will feature finishing touches including hardwood floors, standing seam metal roofs, granite countertops and full-size appliances.
“In my opinion, they’re really well built,” Tozier said. “We made them a little bit nicer. It wasn’t super expensive to do that in a small space. It’s a very economical model, but when you walk in, you think, ‘this is nice.’”
The one-bedroom houses will have a spacious bathroom, a galley kitchen and a living room. They’ll be nearly identical, except for different-colored exteriors, and will each be located on lots that are slightly larger than half an acre. The houses will be run by electricity, Tozier said, and will be heated by heat pumps. They’ll also have a washer, a dryer, a dishwasher and an electric stove, and will be run partly on solar energy.
Backyard Buildings is going to build a large “solar shed,” or a shed equipped with solar panels, to help power the subdivision. And the developers are potentially going to create a micro-grid for the subdivision, with solar panels, batteries and backup generators, so the houses there will be more protected from widespread power outages such as the one that hit the state last fall.
Despite all that, not everyone has greeted the idea of the project with open arms, Tozier said, adding that the bank he and Davis are working with to obtain some financing for the subdivision, Kennebec Savings Bank, had a hard time finding comparable properties in order to get an idea of the project’s value. The bank found no other tiny or small house subdivisions to compare it to, and that makes the developers think they are among the first in the state to move forward with building a small house subdivision.
“Almost everybody thinks it’s a really bad idea,” Tozier said. “Even the Swanville Planning Board felt that way at first. But it’s got a cool factor, and I think it fills a need.”
It’s not his first attempt at building a tiny house subdivision in Waldo County. Last year, he tried to install six Amish-built cabins in Unity, on land that he owns near Unity Pond. He asked the town for a variance to allow him to put the small houses on the property, which didn’t meet the minimum lot size requirement, but ultimately was turned down after property neighbors turned out to voice their opposition.
“It was kind of a learning process, and it prepared me for the Swanville process, which was good,” Tozier, who owns and rents several other houses in Unity, said.
One local official, David Schofield, said he is generally skeptical of the tiny house movement but appreciative of the developers’ efforts to work with the town of Swanville. He’s the town’s code enforcement officer. He said Tozier and Davis sought and received a variance to the town’s minimum one-acre lot size for a building, which allows them to put the houses on a little more than half an acre.
“I give the guys credit for trying. I made them go through their hoops, or the planning board did. We made sure they’ve done their homework,” he said. “I think they have all good intentions … they thought that so close to Belfast, it would be a good rental property. They’re just trying something new [with the small house subdivision]. It’s the first we know of anywhere in the state.”
But Schofield isn’t so sure that people will want to rent houses that are so small. In his generation, new houses were around 1,200 square feet, and most people today are building houses that are 2,400 or more square feet. But 440 square feet? That sounds small to him.
“It’s good for somebody looking for a real small place,” he said. “I don’t see couples staying there long … It’ll be interesting to see how it works.”
Clifton Sawyer, the chairperson of the Swanville Planning Board, said that the board will decide next month whether to give the project final approval. A recent public hearing about the application did not bring up any concerns that he thinks could derail the subdivision.
“I do not at this point see any reason it wouldn’t pass,” he said.
Sawyer said he feels open-minded about the project, and its chances for success in Swanville.
“We are something of a bedroom community for Belfast,” he said. “Some [people] just need a small place to get started. Some people, the size doesn’t bother them. Other people say ‘I couldn’t live in a place that small.’ If there’s a niche there that enough people can afford the rent they’re going to charge, that should be good for them and good for the town.”
However, many in the state and beyond are attracted to small, and even tiny, homes, which can make for cozy, affordable and clutter-free living. Tozier said he and Davis are hopeful there will be a market for the rental properties. The developers, who haven’t yet nailed down details such as how much rent will be, are looking forward to moving forward with the project.
“We’re excited about it,” Tozier said.
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