Scraping Bottom

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Olson and his neighbors understand that. They don't like it, but they know there's not much they can do about it short of a citywide zoning overhaul (which some community leaders are calling for). What they don't understand is this: Why does the city consistently bend the rules so that these big stucco trophy homes can be built even bigger?

When developers want to build taller, wider, bulkier and closer to the street than neighboring houses, they must receive variances from Strapko or the city's five-member Board of Adjustment. Although Strapko's zoning department has narrower authority to grant such exceptions, the board, which is appointed by the mayor, has wider latitude. When evaluating variance requests, both are supposed to consider such conditions as impact on surrounding homes, the effect on the neighborhood's "essential character" and the hardship a builder would face if an exemption is denied.

But with the Board of Adjustment, Olson contends, denials aren't an issue. Each year the board grants far more variances than it denies. Last year, for example, it granted about 200 variances, denying or dismissing about fifty. And Strapko's record isn't much better; he approves between 50 and 75 percent of the approximately 200 variance requests he reviews each year.

Olson thinks that's excessive. "They're giving them out when there aren't extraordinary circumstances," he says. "What should be an exception has become the rule."

But Strapko and Janice Tilden, director of the Board of Adjustment, insist the raw numbers don't tell the whole story. Of the variances granted by the board last year, more than half involved such minor projects as adding a second backyard shed or raising an alley wall by a foot, Tilden says. And with controversial cases, such as scrape-offs, the variances were granted for good reasons: They were supported by neighbors; they made the nearby houses look better; they did not drastically affect the neighbors; there was no way around them.

"We have many cases where only a part of the house is in violation," she says. "Most will generally meet code, but they'll do something like stick up in one corner by about three feet. And that's just not the same as having massive violations that really alter the character of a neighborhood."

Strapko agrees. Although most neighbors don't realize it, he says, he gives them the benefit of the doubt when evaluating variances. If a builder cannot convince neighbors of the need for an exemption, Strapko sends the builder back to the drawing board. "People come in here all the time with permits that don't meet the requirements," he says. "Because of the enormous market pressure, many of them will press the limits or beyond. But when they're called on it, many will do just about anything they can to avoid going into a public hearing. They'll change their plans rather than go to the Board of Adjustment. I know a lot of contractors who do that. They don't want input from [the neighbors] around them."

And since most of the scrape-offs are built according to code, they don't require exemptions, Tilden adds. Last year the board considered only ten scrape-off variances. Four were approved, five were dismissed and one was denied. So far this year, there have been six requests; two were granted, two are pending, one was withdrawn and one was denied.

"I wouldn't say that's a world-shaking number," Tilden says. "We hear 400 cases on average every year. When you take the overall number into consideration, the [scrape-off] statistic probably doesn't mean much."

What neighbors need to understand, Tilden and Strapko say, is this: A variance by itself rarely transforms the look and feel of a neighborhood like Cory-Merrill.

"A lot of the changes in neighborhoods are not specifically caused by the Board of Adjustment," Tilden says. "There's just a lot of building going on in the city in general. And a lot of that building, however strange and large it might seem, is totally legal."

Olson says he understands all he needs to, and what he understands is this: When it comes to scrape-offs, one variance is one too many. With scrape-offs, developers start with a clean slate. They build from the ground up. They know the city's guidelines. They know the property's constraints. They should be able to configure their blueprints to handle any problems. They shouldn't need to bend any rules. Just because they want to build bigger and make more money doesn't mean the city should allow them to do it. Especially if it helps erode neighborhood character.

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Harrison Fletcher

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