Every member of the Greensboro City Council should be required to attend a Board of Adjustment meeting.
For some reason, these meetings are not televised, perhaps because the belief is that no one would voluntarily sit down and watch a Board of Adjustment meeting – the name alone makes your eyelids get heavy.
But the reason the councilmembers should all have to attend a meeting is not to punish them, but for city councilmembers to see how they are punishing the people of Greensboro with outdated and nonsensical laws.
The good news is that the current Board of Adjustment realizes that the zoning laws in Greensboro don’t make a lick of sense and regularly grants variances for those who pay the money and take the time to come to a meeting.
Board of Adjustment member Chuck Truby often apologizes to people for the inconvenience of having to apply for and receive a variance for something like increasing the size of their front porch.
In the past, the city staff has come to meetings to argue against a homeowner being able to add a porch, a closet or a carport, but that has stopped. Now the staff presents the issue, the property owner explains the problem, the Board of Adjustment votes to grant the variance and everybody goes home happy.
The problem is the absurdity of the laws for which variances are being granted.
The crazy front setback for single-family homes is still in effect. Why is it crazy? Because it can be different for every house on the block, and a lot of homes are out of compliance right now.
If your house happens to be closer to the street than the houses on either side, your house is most likely out of compliance, which means that if you need to fix your front porch and do anything more serious than painting, you may be required to get a variance.
The front setback in single-family residential zoning districts is determined by measuring the setbacks of the two houses on either side and figuring the mean setback. So if the two houses on one side are 100 feet back from the street and the two houses on the other side are 20 feet, your setback is 60 feet. This is the case even if your house was built with a 20-foot setback because three lots on the street are much shallower than the other two.
There is no variation for streets that curve, differences in lot size or anything else. It’s a bad law that should have never been passed, and all it would take is five votes on the City Council to return to a reasonable setback that everyone could understand.
There was bad news at the end of the Monday, July 24 Board of Adjustment meeting. The Planning Department, in response to the complaints from the Board of Adjustment members and others about the number of variances being requested for front porches, has come up with a text amendment to the current ordinance to make an exception for front porches.
This is exactly what the law doesn’t need – more complication. The way to fix the problem is to get rid of the idea that the city has to control everything and instead have a reasonable setback in order to keep so many houses from being nonconforming.
The setback used to be 25 feet in some single-family residential zonings. The city should go back to 25 feet. The side and rear setbacks are not averages of what four other houses have as setbacks, but a distance that anyone with a tape measure can figure out on their own.
Making an exception for front porches will make the situation worse, not better.
Another law that as far as anyone knows serves no useful purpose is for accessory buildings in single-family residential zoning – like a garage, shed or pool house. The electricity has to come from the main house. It is illegal to have two electric meters, one for the garage or pool house and one for the main house.
Board of Adjustment member Mary Skenes asked the purpose of this law at the Monday meeting when a request was made for a variance.
Planning Manager Mike Kirkman said it had been on the books for a long time and he wasn’t sure, but he thought it was to discourage commercial activity in residential areas.
Skenes suggested it was to keep people from renting out garage apartments in single-family neighborhoods.
At one time in the world of city planning, that was considered a big no-no. Garage apartments or accessory dwellings in single-family neighborhoods were, according to the prevailing opinion among city planners, a terrible thing.
Today, the prevailing opinion among city planners seems to be that garage apartments and accessory dwellings should be encouraged because they can bring economic and age diversity to a neighborhood.
For instance, not many graduate students or young professionals can afford a home in Irving Park, but they could afford to rent a garage apartment, and there are many instances in which having someone living in garage apartment could be helpful to the property owners. An elderly person living alone might like having someone on the property but not underfoot. A retired couple that travels a lot might feel more comfortable with someone living on the property while they were off gallivanting around the globe or spending the summer at the beach. A young family with a number of kids could rent to someone interested in babysitting.
City planners in much of the country are now encouraging this type of development; in Greensboro, the law designed to make it more difficult is still being enforced because it is on the books and nobody has sought to remove it.
There were two cases where the Board of Adjustment granted variances for electric meters on Monday night, because nobody gave the Board of Adjustment any reason not to.
It actually doesn’t seem like the city should have any say in how many electric meters someone has on their property. If someone wants a separate meter for their garage, or pool, or both, why shouldn’t they have them? It doesn’t hurt anyone. It seems that this should be between the property owner and Duke Energy and the city should get out of the way.
Another request for a variance that came before the board on Monday concerned State Street.
Many people, even those who shop there regularly, don’t realize there is an indoor tennis court on State Street, or there was. It is being turned into a microbrewery.
The owners had to get a variance to build out to the sidewalk, so the renovated building will be in conformity with the other businesses on State Street, which was built as a little downtown area and the buildings were built on the front lot line without any setback at all.
Greensboro doesn’t have a zoning designation for zero lot line setbacks outside of the Central Business District, so all the buildings in State Street are out of compliance with the zoning ordinance, and to build something that will fit in requires a variance. It also means that all of the buildings that are currently on State Street have to get a variance to make major renovations because their buildings are out of compliance with the setback regulations.
It is really nonsensical. In residential areas the city has a setback requirement that is designed to require all the houses on the street to have essentially the same setback. (It doesn’t work, but that is the desire.) But in an old commercial district, a variance is required to allow a building to be built with the same zero lot line setback as the existing buildings.
When the entire city was rezoned with a new citywide zoning ordinance in 2014, the city should have taken areas like State Street – and there are a few in the city, the corner of Walker and Elam is one, Tate Street is another – and created a zoning district where the buildings would be in compliance. Instead the city kept essentially the same old zoning so that these areas would remain out of compliance.
It might seem that the city is making a fortune on variances and that rather than taking steps to reduce the number of variances and make Greensboro more development friendly, the city wants more people to have to navigate the red tape, appear before the Board of Adjustment and pay their fees. That would make some sense, but that doesn’t appear to be the case.
The good news is that the Board of Adjustment realizes that many of the zoning laws in Greensboro don’t make sense even to the city planners, so the board regularly grants variances unless there is some objection.
But the people shouldn’t have to be there in the first place. Of the five requests for variances at the Board of Adjustment meeting on Monday, only one presented a real issue for which a variance should be needed. It was an interesting case of a house placed oddly on a large lot, and exactly the reason the Board of Adjustment exists.
The board studied it and granted a variance to allow a swimming pool to be built. The other four requests for variance involved issues that should have never been before the Board of Adjustment in the first place.