Originally created 01/31/00

Variances issue hits planners' nerve



The 19 inches finally did it.

One house in one Columbia County neighborhood crossed a setback line by 19 inches, touching off a brouhaha over variances that could change the way homes are built.

"You go in before you construct and ask for a variance," said Columbia County Planning Commission Chairman Steve Brown. "That's the way it should work. What we have a problem with is, they come after the fact. The house is built, the people have moved in and the bank has made a loan on it."

When Tom and Linda Hicks moved into their Ivy Falls Plantation home at the end of November, they had no idea about the 19 inches. As they prepared documents to close on the loan, Mr. Hicks discovered the setback problem: The house was built too close to a property line.

"I kind of understood how they could do that," Mr. Hicks said. "A lot of time the lots -- after clearing and grading -- the sticks have been disturbed or they use a string and approximate positions of pins instead of actual positions. I guess there is an opportunity there not to have a proper setback."

To close on the loan, the couple needed a variance -- a petition filed with the county asking for an exception to zoning rules. And though members of the planning commission approved it, they weren't happy.

"We should never have to do this on a new home," said Roger Johnson of the planning commission.

The variance request was the third since 1997 for the Hickses' builder, Jack O'Tyson of Kingsbury Homes. Now, planning commissioners are trying to find a way to decrease the number of residential variance requests.

Since 1995, the number of residential variances filed yearly has fluctuated from a low of four in 1996 to a high of 11 in 1998. Last year, the county heard five variance requests, and there has been one so far in 2000.

County planners have just begun looking at ways to cut down on the number of variance requests, especially ones that come after a home is built.

Mr. Brown said one way to circumvent variance requests is to require developers to file a site before obtaining a building permit. That would cost about $125, compared with more than $500 for filing a variance request.

"If a builder has a question, all he has to do is spend $125 and submit the site plan with his building permit, and he's clear," Mr. Brown said. "If he follows that surveyor's plan and he measures out, he's not liable."

Before any new requirements are implemented, the planning commission will throw ideas at the Construction Advisory Board, which is made up of local contractors.

"(A pre-building permit site survey) may only be required in higher density neighborhoods where you know you are going to have problems," said Mr. Brown, who is applying for a variance of his own for a development on Ridge Road -- this one to cut the width of a road from 22 feet to 18 feet. "When you put up houses that have 5-foot setbacks, that's just so tight, unless you do it exactly the right way, you are going to have problems."

Columbia County officials are not alone in dealing with zoning variances. Planners in Richmond County send variance requests to a Board of Zoning Appeals, which meets monthly.

"You are always going to have that," said Richmond County Planning Commission Executive Director George Patty. "You are going to have builders that go out there and lay out the foundation before a survey is done, or they ignore the survey or a sub goes out to form the foundation. It's just part of the building business."

Across the Savannah River, where the Aiken County Planning and Development office gets five to 10 residential variance requests annually, officials don't see a problem. Development Official Greg Szymik said many building problems are caught in a pre-development review.

"There is a review of the application for the building permit, but it is not as intensive because the requirements are not as strict (as commercial requirements)," he said.

Reach Jason B. Smith at (706) 868-1222, Ext. 115.

Exceptions

Residential variances sought in Columbia County:

  • 1995 -- 6

  • 1996 -- 4
  • 1997 -- 7
  • 1998 -- 11
  • 1999 -- 5
  • 2000 -- 1 (so far)