The idiocy of the Greensboro zoning ordinance regarding setbacks cannot be exaggerated.
The good news is that the current Board of Adjustment realizes this is an absolutely ridiculous ordinance and grants variances to just about anyone who requests one.
The bad news is that building and development is held up and made more expensive because Greensboro property owners – who are already paying the highest property tax rate in the state of any comparable city – are forced to pay more to request a variance and then go through the mind-numbing process of applying for the variance and appearing before the Board of Adjustment.
I don’t have the official records going back to 1808 when Greensboro was founded, but I believe the Board of Adjustment set an all time record on Monday, Feb. 27, when it granted a front setback variance of “approximately” 148 feet. Since nobody knows the exact setback because it’s too complicated to figure, the setbacks under the new ordinance are listed as “approximately.”
In this case the owners at 4823 Country Lane Road requested a variance of approximately 148 feet of a front setback of approximately 188 feet. According to sworn testimony at the Board of Adjustment meeting, if the required setback were adhered to it would put the house in the Bryan Boulevard right-of-way, making it an unbuildable lot and essentially worthless.
The front setback, according to the zoning ordinance passed in 2014, is determined by measuring the front setback of the two houses on either side in the same block as the lot in question and then averaging the setback of those four houses. In this case there were only two houses in the same block and both had much deeper lots. One had a front setback of 260 feet and the other of 160 feet.
If someone is building the first house on a block, then they are required to meet the 25-foot front setback – which was the residential zoning setback prior to the passage of the 2014 zoning ordinance. But if the lots have been built on, then your neighbors houses determine the setback for your lot.
Later in the meeting where there was only one other house on the same block as the house at 2302 Creekwood Road. The homeowner wanted to put an addition on the front of his house, but since the other house on the block was set back 39 feet, he needed a variance to build into that required 39-foot setback.
The front setback ordinance might make some sense if all the homes were on straight streets and all the lots had exactly the same dimensions, but that isn’t the way Greensboro was laid out – streets curve and lots are of all different dimensions.
With the current Board of Adjustment, the setback ordinance is an unnecessary expense and an annoyance, but with previous Boards of Adjustment, which granted variances only in the most extreme circumstances, it would pose a real hardship.
The Greensboro City Council could fix this problem in about five minutes – a little more if Councilmember Sharon Hightower chose to speak on it. But all the council needs to do is instruct the city attorney to research the old zoning ordinance and see if, from a legal standpoint, it needs any alterations. Then the council simply replaces the new front setback ordinance with the old one, and instead of people constantly trying to figure out what the “approximate” front setback is, the homeowner can go out measure 25 feet and know that is in compliance.
It’s not like the City Council is doing anything else. It held a daylong retreat where the council hardly bothered to discuss anything and adjourned early, and the last couple of meetings have been less than two hours long.
This is something the council could actually do to promote economic development, but so far there has been no indication that it plans to do anything this year other than talk about the Minority and Women’s Business Enterprise (MWBE) program, and this appears to have no MWBE implications.