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BoA awaits better hardship for east side development

Monday, April 18, 2016 by Elizabeth Pagano

A project that could bring three-story homes to the east side may be on track for getting some of the variances it needs – but developers are going to have to strengthen their hardship claim first.

At their most recent meeting, Board of Adjustment members voted unanimously to postpone two variance requests for the property at 3406 East 17th St. in order to allow Bridgewater Custom Homes to do just that.

Bridgewater is seeking two variances to build on a 1.36-acre property that is zoned Single Family-3 (SF-3). The developers are asking for a variance from horizontal and vertical setbacks. They argue that even though the nearby Saint James Missionary Baptist Church is zoned residential, it is a civic use that is “adversely impacting” the property they wish to develop.

After working with the Martin Luther King Neighborhood Association, developers have modified their request and are now willing to comply with the horizontal setback along the property line that abuts a residential use, which is the one section of the property not bordered by church land.

But, for the remainder of the property, they are hoping to reduce the setback along the property line from 25 feet to 5 feet. The developers are also looking to increase the allowed height from two stories to three stories (or 32 feet) in order to move forward with plans to build 18 detached units.

However, board Member Melissa Neslund pointed out a major problem with the hardship cited by developers, which is that the city code specifically includes civic and religious assembly uses in setback requirements.

“I don’t feel like I can say you have a hardship when the code explicitly states that civic uses apply,” said Neslund, who later acknowledged that, in her opinion, that was a flaw in the city code.

Andrew Bucknall, who is the vice president of the neighborhood association, said the group had spoken with neighbors opposed to the variance and formed a committee to discuss the project. He explained that having worked on the project since November, the committee ultimately reached a compromise resolution.

However, despite the appearance of a neighborhood compromise, opposition to the project does persist within the neighborhood, and several of the residents who are unhappy with the variance request spoke during the meeting.

Nicole Tults said she had been “really hopeful” that the effort would find something that would help the neighborhood. However, she said, that did not happen.

“What I found instead is that I have even less faith about this development than I did before the entire process,” said Tults. “I’ve lost all hope in this process. I’m completely disenfranchised. My experience with both the neighborhood association and the developer left me feeling like they were really disingenuous.”

In addition to her worries about the process, Tults said that she did not think developers had the hardships required for a variance from the land development code and questioned whether the terms they agreed to with the neighborhood were enforceable over the long-term.

Neighbor Jeff Page also couldn’t see what the required hardship was. He told the board that he had seen alternative plans showing that the developer could build 30 units on the land without a variance. Those plans, he said, illustrated that there is not a barrier to development on the property.

In addition, Page noted that the church is currently looking to sell some of its property and that property would likely have a residential use in the future as a consequence. Jesus Prairie, who was speaking on behalf of the developers, told the board that they had “not gotten any word from the church at all” that its parking lot and detention pond would be developed.

Neighbors, along with several board members, also questioned the project’s compatibility with its environs. It would be a three-story project on a hill in the middle of a primarily one-story neighborhood.

Board Member Michael Von Ohlen said that what he saw was “a clean slate” in terms of how the land could be developed, though he had no problem with a setback variance for the land that ran along the church’s parking lot. However, he said he could not support three-story buidings with rooftop decks next to residences.

Chair William Burkhardt went one step further, saying, “I will not support a three-story project carte blanche.”

The case will return to the Board of Adjustment in June.

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