“We have an ordinance that makes no sense.”
“We’ve got to get this changed. It’s like a broken record.”
Three comments from three members of the Greensboro Board of Adjustment (BOA) during its Monday, May 22 meeting talking about the residential front setback zoning ordinance, which is what BOA member Mike Cooke called “silly.”
BOA member Mary Skenes said, it “makes no sense”
And BOA member Chuck Truby said, “It’s like a broken record.”
Setbacks are usually a certain number of feet, for example, a 10-foot side setback for residential zoning. Everyone can understand it. To measure it, all you have to do is find the property line and measure 10 feet back and that’s where it’s legal to build.
In the former Greensboro zoning ordinance, the residential front setback was 20 feet. It means you had to build 20 feet back from your front property line.
But the Greensboro Planning Department recommended, and the Greensboro City Council passed, a bizarre front setback for single-family residential property that is actually beyond silly.
Instead of being a particular distance from the front property line, the setback may be different for every house on the block because it is based on the average setback of the two houses on either side, or for a corner house the two closest houses.
Even the city can’t figure it out sometimes; on one lot the city came up with three different setbacks. The owners of the lot decided they had had enough of the city’s silliness and built their house elsewhere. The lot is still vacant.
What the Board of Adjustment found in two cases on Monday was that the houses themselves, which had been built prior to the ordinance, were nonconforming, which means they were built closer to the street than the new setback ordinance allowed, so nothing could be done to the front of the house without going to the expense and trouble of getting a variance.
One house was a great example of why this ordinance is illogical. The two houses used to determine the setback both have lots that were 150 feet deep, whereas the house in question had a lot that is 100 feet deep. As you might expect, the houses on the 150-foot lots were built further back from the street than the house on the 100-foot lot. But the ordinance does not take different lot sizes into consideration. Where the house in question currently sits is, according to the zoning ordinance, 14 feet closer to the street than allowed by the ordinance.
A few months ago there was a case where an older home in an established neighborhood was being torn down and a new version of that home was being built, except because of this strange setback regulation only a tiny little house could be built on the lot because, once again, it was an odd shaped lot and to meet the setback ordinance the house could only be one room wide. The strict enforcement of the law would have made the lot practically unbuildable.
The good news is that the Board of Adjustment routinely approves these variance requests.
This zoning would not have been in effect since 2009 without the recession. Building pretty much stopped during the recession and if people were making renovations they were adding bathrooms and renovating kitchens, not building front porches or new homes. Now that the economy is doing better, people are building houses and even adding porches to existing houses.
The City Council should, at its next meeting, pass an ordinance amendment to go back to the old city zoning ordinance on residential single-family front setbacks. The staff will want to make a big deal out of it, maybe hire a consultant, appoint a committee, hold a hearing and whatever other delaying tactics they can think of. But it’s really simple. The language for the old ordinance worked for many years and will still work.
If the City Council wants to be homeowner- and builder-friendly, this is a no-brainer, and fixing the ordinance won’t cost anything.
After the City Council gets that done, then they might want to think about fixing the Planning Department, which is a hindrance to development in Greensboro.