Our Home Addition - Part 2

This story is the continuation of Our Home Addition - Part 1.  If you are just starting here, don't be silly....go back and read Our Home Addition - Part 1.  I insist!


OK....so where was I......Oh yeah....I had just said:


Oh sh*t!


Thats all I could think.  

I had been agonizing over the design of our house for over a month and had just realized that the design violated 2 City of Charleston zoning ordinances.


By law, we would not be able to build the design as it was currently drawn.  Here is a diagram that illustrates the setbacks:

Setback diagram.

Zoning would not allow us to build in that area of yellow and blue.  And you will notice that practically 90% of our addition falls within those setbacks.  Ahh!!!  I guess we could build those tiny little wedge shapes....I don't think that would help very much.

I was just dumbfounded.  Every city project that I had worked on at LS3P was on a site where there were no setback requirements.  And our neighborhood is full of buildings that butt up directly to the sidewalk.  Because of that I had just assumed that my house, in the city, also had the same zero setback requirements.    Wrong!

This is what our neighborhood looks like.  Buildings right up at the sidewalk.  Architects would call this an 'urban condition.'

I immediately called the city hoping that there was some sort of mistake.  I kind of expected this call to be futile but hey........worth a shot.  Of course the folks at the city confirmed that the zoning chart was accurate and that these odd setback requirements were real.  What the!!!!


There was a little bit of hope produced by this call. They recommended that I apply for a variance.  They said that many people are granted variances for this sort of situation and that the city is typically in support.

A ha....A variance!

So I had two options at this point.  Option one would be to totally redesign the plans in order to conform to the rules.  Uhh....No way man!  Or option two, I could keep the design as currently drawn and apply for a variance...Yeah.....thats what I'm talking about....breaking the law!

Or vary from the law...but that just doesn't sound as cool.  

Variances are actually pretty common, especially in cities where there are often antiquated zoning regulations.  Although variances are common, there is a formal process and it is definitely no walk in the park. 

Luckily, I had experience requesting variances on some of the commercial projects that I had worked on in the past.  In fact, for one hotel we had to get 4 different variances.  So I am no stranger to the process. The biggest downfall in this situation is that it would require a 1 month delay in our process because the zoning hearing does not occur until 1 month after you make your submittal.  And we couldn't start the B.A.R. process until we dealt with zoning.

So I sucked it up and started preparing my zoning application and supporting exhibits. Zoning variances tend to be very technical and wordy so I will spare you the details.  Instead here is a brief synopsis:

The Ramos Variance Brief Synopsis:

The Application

With a variance, you must prove to your jurisdiction that you have some sort of hardship that is specific to your property and that what you are proposing will not have any negative impact on the neighborhood.  The process involves an application, a written explanation, and any supporting exhibits such as drawings and photographs.

The Zoning Hearing

A month after the application submittal there is a formal zoning board meeting where the applicant has a chance to present their case and the public has an opportunity to voice support or opposition to the project.  And then the zoning board (kinda like a jury) has a discussion and ultimately makes a motion to approve or deny the application.  It is similar to court, in fact, it is not uncommon for an attorney to represent the applicant rather than an architect.

We couldn't afford an attorney so I would have to put on my attorney hat.  Yet another thing that an architect does. 

My Strategy

With our case, our hardship was that we were being required to abide by a rule that no one in our neighborhood was following.  Remember, our house was unusual for its big setbacks.  Everyone else is built right up at the street.  

And by allowing this variance, we would be able to build closer to the property line thereby making our property more similar to the existing neighborhood.  Because we would be making our house more similar to the neighborhood then there would not be a negative impact.  It would be a positive.

Pretty boring right?

Here are some examples of some of the exhibits that I prepared for the submittal:

This site plan illustrates the variance being requested.

These photos of the existing neighborhood illustrate that it is very common for the buildings to be directly against the sidewalk.

Although zoning is not about aesthetics.  I included some nice renderings of the design to help sweeten the deal.

Meet with the neighborhood. 

One of the most important steps in the variance process is to meet with the neighborhood. Liken it to 'greasing the tracks.'  If you show up at your zoning hearing and it is evident that you did not speak with the neighbors, then it is very likely that the zoning board will automatically reject your application.  

Of course meeting with neighborhoods is always interesting.  Regardless of the project, you will have a group that is in support and a group that is in opposition.  And you are unlikely to be able to convince the opposers otherwise.  However, the benefit of meeting those opposers ahead of time is that you become familiar with their arguments.  That way, when you finally do get your chance to present your case, you are adequately prepared for all the arguments that could come your way.  It's that saying, 'better the devil you know, than the devil you don't.'

The Neighborhood Design Review Board

Our neighborhood actually has a design review group that meets regularly to review projects.  We scheduled a time to come and present our project.

I was pretty shocked to find over 20 people crammed into the dining room of a house for our meeting.  It was legit.  I could tell Danielle was a little nervous by the whole setup.  The group that presented before us got bombarded with all sorts of questions.  When it was our turn I did my thing.  Showed them the drawings and explained the rationale behind the design.

Overall they were very commendable of the design and there were also lots of good suggestions on how to make certain details.  They took a vote and everyone rose their hand in support of our project.  And most important, they agreed to send a letter to the city expressing their support for our project.  Yes!!!!

This is the Cannonborough Elliotborough Neighborhood Association Design Review Board.......wow..that's a mouthful.

Meet The Neighbors

The next step was to meet with the neighbors directly adjacent to our project.  These would be the folks most directly impacted by our project.

This also went well.  People were generally thrilled that we were going to be improving our house.  Our house is that house on the street that everyone knows about and are praying that it will improve.  I think they call that being infamous.

Building Confidence

The month leading up to the meeting actually flew by.  As we did our politicking in the neighborhood I was slowly gaining confidence that we would get our design passed. Because of my confidence, I continued to advance the design rather than wait for the zoning meeting.  This is what we would call a calculated risk.  This occurs with my professional work all the time. Rather than sit on our hands we try to predict which parts of the design are safe to work on.

And then....

The 2nd Oh Sh*t Moment

The day before the meeting, one of our neighbors notified us that they were not in support of the design and would be opposing our variance.  This was a major shock because we had previously met with this neighbor and they did not have any objections.  What changed?

Again I could tell that Danielle was a little shaken by this process.  I assured her that I deal with 'tricky' neighbors on a lot of my projects and to not let it get to her.

However, I was also a little shaken (secretly) to hear of the neighbors opposition especially a day before the meeting.  On the bright side, I was glad that they at least warned us and explained their concerns ahead of the meeting.  Remember my point above about knowing the arguments?

Well....that neighbor did show up at the meeting... and after I did my presentation they stood up and voiced their opposition to the project.  They had the following concerns about our design.

  1. They felt like their house was being over-crowded by our new addition.
  2. They thought that our house would block their view.
  3. Because it was built right up to the property line, they thought that it would create a 'canyon effect' at the street.
  4. And they never liked the look of our house and just wished there was less of it.

Uh oh....It's on now!

My rebuttal:

The way the meeting is structured is that after the public comment, the applicant has the ability to address the comments.  a.k.a. a rebuttal.

  1. In regards to the crowded comment, I highlighted that the addition was not being built on the side of our property that affected the neighbor.  And that we had the ability, by the current zoning to build within very close proximity to this person's house, but had elected not to.  I also highlighted that in Charleston, houses are often built within close proximity to each other and that is just part of the 'urban condition.'
  2. In regards to the view comment, I stated that there was no view to be had, that they did not have any legal entitlement to a view across our property, and that by our addition only being 1 story, that it would be the least obtrusive to blocking any view.
  3. In regards the 'canyon effect,' I stated again that the 1 story addition was the least obtrusive and would only be 9' high at the low point.  9' is hardly a canyon.
  4. I did not address the last comment because it was ridiculous and subjective.  Zoning is about facts and quantitative data.  The look of the house is governed by the B.A.R.

And the board says.......

After a very quick discussion the board unanimously...

Approved the Application.

Their comment was that building to the street is very typical in Charleston and that they approve this type of thing all the time.

Yeah....whoop, whoop!

So we were back on track.  I had previously thought that the variance was going to be a slam dunk, but our neighbor's opposition made it a lot more interesting.  Luckily our neighbor talked to us a few days later and said that there were no hard feelings.  We certainly didn't have any, so we are all good there.

This was a big step getting the variance, but there would be many more.  Our next major hurdle would be the B.A.R.  Zoning is fairly predictable, but the B.A.R. is anything but predictable.  

See you at the B.A.R.!

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Hello, my name is Steve Ramos.  This site is about what it's like to be a young architect in Charleston, South Carolina.  In 10 years, I will write about what it is like to be a middle-age architect. 

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