402 St. Charles Street
A two-hour session yielded two denials, one almost certain to lead to litigation. A brief history of the city’s height “limits” follows.
Members present: Stuart Roberts (S), Beverly LeBoeuf, Lauren Gwaltney, chair, Brian Jarmon, vice chair, Ty Cole, and Andrew Marlin (S).
Members absent: Matt Foley and Battalion Chief Nickolas Hill.
Staff present: Vanessa McGrath of the Building, Engineering and Zoning Department; Planning and zoning clerk Donna Bridges, part-time planner Fred Goodwin. A court recorder appeared to be seated next to Ms. McGrath for the first two cases.
*Note on procedure: The BZA is authorized to grant adjustments or exceptions to zoning regulations if warranted by an eligible hardship connected to the property. By state law, variances can only be granted by a super majority of 4 yes votes of the 5-member board. To keep business moving in case of absences, the law also allows two supernumerary members (S) to sit in and vote if needed. The two substitutes vote alternately. Variances expire in 180 days if a building permit isn’t obtained. Decisions of the BZA are appealable to state circuit court.
Audience attendance: 30
1920 29th Avenue South
Allowed Urban Cookhouse to build three parking spaces in a public alley: The restaurant is moving from 18th Street to 1920 29th Avenue South, site of a former wine shop now moving into Do Di Yo’s old location. To add parking, although not a requirement, the local restaurant, in a building owned by Christopher Moroun will be demolishing a curb in an alley behind the store’s parking lot and forming three parallel parking spaces. Commissioners asked why there was a rule against alley parking and staff said safety was the main concern. The area is awkward, with a power pole presenting a hazard at one end and two-way traffic allowed on the 10-foot-wide throughway. Customers will have to enter from 19th Street and exit onto 29th Avenue. Once parked, they will have to walk through a row of angled parking to get to the restaurant’s back door. Nevertheless, after some questioning, the variance was approved.
609 Forest Drive
Denied a request to divide a residential lot on a Forest cul-de-sac into two lots that are smaller and narrower than regulations require: Property owners had done their homework before asking permission to divide a lot 100 X 180 feet at 609 Forest Drive into two lots 50 feet wide, saying they wanted to build a cottagey house on one small lot and sell the other, perhaps to relatives. Each of the two resulting lots would have fallen 1,620 square feet below the required area and 8 feet narrower than code. In asking for exemptions, one of the owners, the wife, read from a prepared script about the couple’s love of Homewood, the extended research and scrutiny they had given to building options, architects and builders. Their stated hardships were that lots in the immediate area–which are used to compute the standard lot size for such resurveys–were unusually large compared to the rest of Edgewood and skewed the metric against them. “If this lot was in another area we wouldn’t even need a variance,” she said. She made a second point, saying that any new house built on the undivided lot would have to be large to justify the land value, and thereby not fit in with the neighborhood.
Four prospective neighbors agreed, saying they trusted the couple’s taste, that new houses would add to neighborhood value, and fit in more with the new look evolving in Edgewood. However, they were out-argued by those who opposed. Both next door neighbors argued that the division would create “the smallest lots in Homewood on which would go the largest houses.” Both also said no true hardship existed except a financial one, a point that later earned the case a denial. “They are trying to maximize value,” said a neighbor at 611 Forest. A neighbor at 605 Forest argued that the house currently standing on the lot for decades is the best standard for what “fits in” with the neighborhood.
After the hearing, the couple’s rebuttal failed the hardship test when asked by Mr. Cole what they would do if the case were denied. “Sell it,” the wife said.
Voting yes on the failed vote to approve the variances: Andrew Marlin
Neighbors said they were looking forward to a 1 1/2 story craftsman style house, as promised. Builders and city inspections are both at fault in tonight’s height variance case, and likely lawsuit.
Denied allowing a house under construction to stand that exceeded height limits: 402 St. Charles Street: In a case that is very likely to end up in court, with the city as defendants, the commission denied two variances that would allow an unfinished house to stand 1.8 feet higher than regulations allow (measured from the threshold to the rooftop) and standing on a crawl space that is 2 feet higher above ground than code allows. Complicating the issue from a legal standpoint is the contractor’s claim, confirmed by Ms. McGrath, that the city signed off on the plan not once (in allowing the initial permit) but twice (in a field inspection after the house was framed in). The mistaken inspection, made sometime in June, gave contractor Gary Smith another 30 days to work before a second inspection correctly measured the house and crawl space as being in violation. Even then, he said, a stop-work order wasn’t issued but a note left at the site saying he may need a variance. The only notice he received, he said, was in August.
Several neighbors spoke at the hearing, disputing the timeline and saying they had complained to the city about the house height months ago. Two neighbors said they were told the house would be a “story-and-a-half Craftsman design,” and reacted when they saw a different house towering out of the ground. One neighbor said she had emailed Ms. McGrath in June and was told the builders had been ordered to stop. Ms. McGrath admitted mistakes. She said the plans reflected the noncompliant measurements and the plans were approved. However, details were difficult to confirm, as Ms. McGrath didn’t have the dates of the actions immediately available, and no one questioned the contractor’s claim that he was left a “note,” not issued official order to stop until August Another neighbor said she was shocked at the amount of work that had occurred after complaints were made, saying bricks had been delivered recently as if the project wasn’t on hold. Another neighbor asked in general why inspectors and builders had so much trouble measuring and following regulations.
Following the hearing, commissioners Gwaltney and Cole continued to scold the builder, owner and architect. “Yes we made mistakes. Mistakes were made everywhere,” Mr. Cole said. “But you all are professionals. Don’t you read the ordinances when you’re doing a job?
The architect and contractor said they based their plans on past experience in Homewood. Ms. Gwaltney said their job was to have the correct measurements, not to rely on an inspection checklist. Interestingly, the architect argued repeatedly with Mr. Cole that the two-story house with an attic was only a 1 1/2 story house on one of its sides.
It is not clear what remedy the owner and builders can make, since the house is in violation at the roof and at the crawl space. With no variances granted, the cost of taking down the house will no doubt be settled in court.
Voting yes in the failed motion to grant the variances: Brian Jarmon and Stuart Roberts.
Two of five planned houses on the Broadway “triangle.” Developer Chris Tucker joined another builder in June 2016 to object to height restrictions on new houses. Over the course of the summer, the city held more than a dozen public meetings for builders to air their concerns, pushing height limits higher.
A brief history of the housing height fight in 2016, with links. This case is the first to ask for a height variance under the new rules:
Hardly anyone cared in April 2016 when the Planning Commission unanimously approved new residential height limits combined with a straightforward method of measuring, among other zoning amendments. But by the time it got to the council, builders were showing concern. From June to September 2016 through (at least) 11 additional public meetings, the limit was raised from 25 feet to 29 feet for lots narrower than 55 feet, and being recommended unanimously by the planning commission in April 2016, an outcry by the building community raised those limits to new heights by the time of a vote five months later. up the commission and council issue was passed unanimously by Over the course of five months and at least 13 meetings of various city boards
Height limit history in links:
Height limits and straightforward measurement method recommended by the Planning Commission in April 2016
June 13, 2016 – Height limits carried over by the council following objections by two builders; BZA chair Lauren Gwaltney also asks for more time.
June 27, 2016 – Decision carried over again by council more objections from architects and builders.
July 11, 2016 – Council decision carried over a third time to accommodate an ongoing conversation with builders over proposed height limits.
July 19, 2016 – Planning Commission subcommittee forum (not reported) draws residents, council members and builders to offer input. The council president provisionally raises the proposed height limit from 25 feet to 29 feet for smaller lots and an 800 sf dwelling minimum is kept in place.
July 25, 2016 – Details explained further but council carries over a fourth time, this time back to a Planning Commission sub-committee.
Aug. 1, 2016 – Planning and Development Committee provisionally raises height limit again from 29 feet (originally 25) to 32 feet for lots 55 feet wide and under; and height for larger lots raised to 36 feet. The matter is reported in the Aug. 2, 2016, Planning Commission meeting.
Aug. 8, 2016 – Bruce Limbaugh moves the following council meeting from Aug. 22 (the eve of the city election) to Aug. 29 and calls a second “public comment” period on the residential height question. Critics claim the move is to postpone the mayor’s budget presentation until after the election (which proves likely, as history shows the purchase of $4.25 million parcel is approved that night, later followed up by a new tax. bond issue, and other controversies.)
Aug. 29, 2016 – Council holds a one-hour forum on the height limits, where 17 speakers come to the podium, many objecting to the trend toward large houses on cottage lots and loss of neighborhood charm. The matter is then referred back to the Planning Commission.
Sept. 5, 2016 – Ms. McGrath reports the findings to the commission, adding that the 29-foot limit for smaller lots (measured from threshold to rooftop) could still allow up to 3 feet from ground to rooftop for a crawlspace on a sloping lot.
Sept. 12, 2016 – The council approves the changes, detailed in this post.