Variance issue tabled

Published 10:52 am Monday, April 11, 2011

GATESVILLE – Further discussion is necessary before county officials opt to approve a much debated building variance.

At their meeting here last week, the Gates County Board of Commissioners decided, following a lengthy discussion, to meet with the county’s Planning Board before acting on a provision to the county’s Variance for Prior Lots of Record.

“The last time we addressed this it was suggested we try to find a waiver system for non-conforming lots, those that may not meet modern setback standards, but they were already constructed prior to zoning,” said Gates County Planning Director Morgan Jethro. “I talked to some other county planners on this and they told me that as a zoning administrator, you are certifying that the non-conformity is still valid and with the zoning permit it is valid for one year from the date of issuance. Or you can go back the building permit which is valid for six months and after you receive your first inspection, it remains valid for one year between inspections.”

She continued, “We can alleviate this concern of the waiver system by just asking the property owner to obtain a valid building permit, no later than the specified amount of time that the non-conformity has ceased. You don’t have to have a passing inspection, you just have to call in for an inspection. There is no required time frame to complete construction; you are required to have that (construction process) inspected once a year.”

Jethro said that Section 8.02, Note 2, of the current policy  is the same wording except for adding, “Property owners of a nonconforming lot and/or nonconforming structure shall obtain a valid building permit not later than 365 days from the date the nonconformity has ceased in order to replace the structure in its exact former footprint.”

As noted in that section, building lots recorded on or before Dec. 1, 1985 required a 10-foot setback for the front, side and rear. That was amended two years later to call for setback provisions of 10 feet for side (15 feet for a side corner lot) and rear yards and 20 feet for the front yard for lots recorded on or before May 19, 1987. The section was amended again, calling for 20-foot setbacks all around the property line on a lot recorded on or before Oct. 5, 1992.

Jethro pointed out there were numerous smaller lots, some a half-acre or less in size, within the county that do not currently have setbacks to adhere to.

“We are trying to have some sort of minimum setbacks,” she noted.

“I think this is one of those deals if the citizens are not aware of this requirement, they’re going to be put in a position where they will not be able to use their land or their home,” Commissioner Henry Jordan observed. “These types of stipulations catch people in situations they can’t recover from.”

Jordan added that those falling under the old requirements and who may lose their home to a disaster, if they do not get a building permit within 365 days, they can’t rebuild on their lot.

“Why can’t we give them three years, five years,” Jordan asked. “This (one year) puts our citizens in a bad situation. I’m not in favor of a one-year stipulation.”

“They may not be able to rebuild within the same footprint, but they can rebuild by making a few adjustments,” Jethro said.

Commissioner Jack Owens asked about a “variance relief” for the property owner, noting cases of build-backs following a hurricane.

Jordan said by the time a homeowner cleaned-up their property after a hurricane and made plans to rebuild, those two processes alone could take 18 months or more.

“A disaster, a fire or hurricane, is an unplanned event; we’ve got to give our citizens some time to think things through,” Jordan stressed. “If that lot is a half acre, a third of an acre, and you want to rebuild, there’s not a lot of room to allow for adjustments in order to follow these setbacks. I feel the county needs to be reasonable to allow them to rebuild.”

Board Vice Chairman Kenneth Jernigan, who was conducting the meeting in the absence of Chairman Graham Twine, asked Gates County Planning Board members to address these concerns.

“This thing has been kicked back and forth several times,” said Planning Board member Joe Greene. “We put a lot of effort in this. It seems like we’re not getting anywhere. I would like to suggest the Commissioners and the Planning Board hold a joint session and work on this. We need to work this problem out. I don’t have a problem with extending the time, but is this the only problem?”

“I’m only speaking for myself, my opinion, but I believe we need at least 24 months and I wouldn’t be opposed to 36 months,” Jordan stated. “Our citizens need to have the time to do things that will not put them in a bind. We do not need to create anymore hardships for our citizens. We don’t need to put them out of their homes. We need to make rules that favor our citizens. What are we trying to say with this (new rule)…that we’re trying to eliminate homes that are now on lots of less than one acre?”

“This whole situation is about the right of the taxpayer to rebuild,” Commissioner Johnny Hora said. “The only people that comes into play on this is the adjacent landowner. If approval is gained from that landowner, then what’s the problem; why is the county involved? This should all be about the relationship you have with your neighbor.”

Owens said he was of the opinion this issue could be resolved with a meeting between the Commissioners and the Planning Board.

Planning Board member Chuck Brothers said the thought process behind the board’s decision to approve a one-year stipulation was done in an effort to prompt the landowner to show his or her intent (whether or not to rebuild).

“What we used were (two) examples of homes in the county that had been disposed of by fire,” Brothers explained, adding that in both cases the homeowners were in Jethro’s office within 90 days of the fire.

“No one on the Planning Board has an issue that if it was presented to Morgan, she would bring it to you and ya’ll would issue a variance to the petitioner on a case-by-case basis,” Brothers continued. “What we were scared of was the one person that would ruin this for all. We just wanted them to show their intent by communicating with Morgan. We have to have some parameters. Is 12 months too little time; is 24 months too much? We need some dialogue with ya’ll over this.”

“Let me give you an opposite view; if we have a restriction, whether it’s 12 or 24 months, if the owner does not meet that, guess what we’ve got in the county…a burned out home, a structure that’s not replaced; the homeowner can’t afford to tear it down,” Jordan noted. “What we have are foundations, community eyesores that make our county look worse. We want the homeowner to rebuild; we need to give them time to rebuild and keep the community to the way we want Gates County to look.”

“We’ve got two examples of what you’re talking about, fires that destroyed homes over five years ago, and neither property owner has expressed an intent to replace the homes,” Brothers said. “How far is enough?”

“What if those lots are nonconforming,” Jordan asked. “What we need to do is put in place a requirement to deal with those type homes. Once it is in place, the homeowner has to do something.”

“The Planning Board wants to work with these people to rebuild,” Brothers stated. “All we’re asking them is to get a valid building permit within 12 months. If they get to the 11th month and ask for an inspection, they gain another 12 months.”

Owens put a motion on the floor to table this particular issue and for the two boards to meet and open dialogue on the variance for prior lots of record. The motion was approved without objection.

The day and time of that meeting has yet to be decided.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

email author More by Cal