3 “Hardship” Pitches: How Would You Vote?

Christopher Peak PhotoA college administrator asked for a bigger sign for athletic offerings. A couple sought permission for a two-story extension to move in relatives. Parents looked to build a side garage to safely transport their highly allergic daughter.

All three East Rock quests depended on proving “hardship” to win a variance to New Haven’s zoning rules.

New Haven’s Board of Zoning Appeals took up each of these requests at its monthly meeting Tuesday night at the Hall of Records on Orange Street.

Christopher Peak PhotoThe toughest form of relief to get, a variance legally should go only to applicants who can prove an “unreasonable hardship.” The hardship can’t be a personal or economic problem, as one East Rock homeowner found out last July when he tried to move his aunt in from Italy. It can’t even be rooted in the structure itself.

Instead, a hardship must involve a quirk in the property itself, not shared by the adjacent parcels, like an unusual topography or an irregular lot size.

When reviewing plans for a sign, a few rooms and a garage, planning staff recommended denying two of the three applications Tuesday night. The board ended up approving two.

Follow along — and compare how you would have voted in the zoners’ shoes.

Case 1: Big Logo

Google MapsAlbertus Magnus College already has a wrought-iron gate and gold-painted sign announcing its hilltop entrance on Prospect Street. The school sought permission to put up another, much bigger sign near the bottom of the campus.

At 303 Huntington St., the college asked for a variance to put up a 175-square-foot sign on the side of the athletic center, far bigger than the 20-square-foot signs that are allowed in a residential zone. When allowed, bigger signs are generally supposed to contain information or directions, rather than a logo.

Designed by students, the 16.5-foot-tall, non-illuminated sign would appear almost three-dimensional with multiple layers of aluminum. The school said that a treeline would block neighbors’ view of the sign most of the year aside from the few winter months when the trees shed their leaves.

The sign would help “help promote the college when you pull into the driveway, as well as help create the Falcon pride,” James Schafrick, the school’s assistant vice president of operations, told the board.

Thomas Talbot, the city’s deputy zoning director, said that didn’t sound like a hardship, “other than that this is what they want.” He wrote in a staff report that the school hadn’t provided any proof that visitors were “having trouble finding the Athletic Center.”

Board members Tuesday night asked the college to explain.

“I mean, there isn’t a hardship,” Schafrick said. “We’d just like to help promote the school. There’s not a hardship.”

Patricia King, the board’s newly elected chair, said that the sign itself, on campus and blocked by trees most of the year, probably wouldn’t be “offensive” to neighbors. But she added, “We’re really bound by the rules.”

Decision: In a unanimous vote, the five board members voted to deny the application.

Case 2

Stephanie and Elon Boms both planned to make a life in New Haven. But they said adding a garage to their Prospect Hill property was a “make-or-break decision” for whether they would stay.

Both Yale graduates, the couple moved back to New Haven in 2013, buying a million-dollar Colonial at 104 Huntington St. Since then, their 5-year-old daughter, who has lived in the house her whole life, developed severe allergies. Between hospitalizations, the girl missed three weeks of school last year.

“I’m now the proud owner of two Epi-Pens,” her mother said.

Since her daughter is “extraordinarily allergic” to pollen, Stephanie continued, getting the cars scrubbed down every spring morning is “extremely taxing.” “We’re doing our very best to keep her safe.”

The Boms now sought permission to put up a two-car garage and entryway in front of the house, allowing them to reach their cars without going outside but also cutting into the setbacks the ordinance requires. The Boms asked for a 4.3-foot side yard where 8 feet are required and a 22.5-foot front yard where 25 feet are required.

They initially tried to locate the garage in the back of the property. Because of a jut-out in the house, a driveway was too narrow to navigate. Elon said he’d nicked his car several times trying to get it to a backyard shed, which he said was originally built as a horse stable.

The Boms also considered putting it in front, but they didn’t want to diminish the historic character of the neighborhood by adding a garage too close to the middle of the century-old house. “It would look awkward,” Elon said.

The planning staff concluded that that’s exactly where the garage should go. Nate Hougrand, a junior planner, wrote in his staff report that he couldn’t find “any evident hardship in the land.” The placement of the garage, he said, “appears to be based solely on preference and convenience.”

King said she was willing to grant the variance, despite staff’s opposition. “They need a garage, I understand why,” King said. “I don’t think we expect them to tear down the side of their house to get around to the backyard.”

For the side yard, “I can see the logic to why, since the bump-out is already there, to have one straight line down,” she explained. For the front yard, “it’s a little bit more troublesome [but] I think if they can’t get around the side of the house to get to any garage in the back, then I think that the hardship’s on the property.”

Anne Stone, a stickler on the law’s strict definition of hardship, said she didn’t see it.

“There’s no hardship here. There’s already a garage structure. There is a way to get to the backyard,” she said. “It’s a very big parcel of land; it’s a beautiful house as well. I think the garage would be very pretty, but I don’t think there’s a hardship that runs with this land. You have another garage.”

Decision: In two 4-1 splits, the board voted to approve two variances for the front and side yards.

Case 3

Google MapsEyul Wintermeyer and Adam Koszalkowski, a couple who moved to a new place in East Rock last summer, are hoping to move their parents in and start a family of their own.

At a three-story house at 113 Lawrence St., they proposed extending the house’s first two stories out. That meant they needed a number of variances: a 2-foot side yard where 10 feet are required, and 21-foot building side where 17 feet and 4 feet are permitted on either side.

“It’s a small footprint, so another room would really help us be comfortable,” she said.

Christopher Peak PhotoA neighbor, Matt Zwiling, said that all the properties on the block were like this. When the developer put up a row of houses on Lawrence Street in the late 1800s, he cut the lots into narrow sections of only 32 feet, instead of the minimum 50 feet that are required. Most of the other houses on the block already won variances to be extended, he added.

“If you build anything, it needs a variance. The houses are so close together, that’s all there is to it,” he said. “I have three 20-something guys who are roommates [on the upper floor at 117 Lawrence St]. They have much different requirements than a family with children. I have very different goals for my tenants, where a lower square footage is good for lower rents. But for a family, I could not imagine it working. That’s why I support it. It’s reasonable and it’s within the character of the neighborhood.”

Hougrand said that history made this the one variance acceptable, because the lot itself is already non-conforming. Jutted up against each other, the houses don’t meet the required side-yard setbacks already, “making building any form of addition that’s zoning-compliant very difficult,” he wrote.

Decision: In a unanimous vote, the five board members voted to approve the application.

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posted by: robn on May 11, 2018  11:25am

Ms Stone was correct; the Huntington Street property has no legal hardship and this should have been denied. And the plan is ridiculous. Who would put a garage in front of any house never mind this truly magnificent one? I would expect lawsuits from neighbors.

posted by: Esbey on May 11, 2018  12:59pm

The BZA is taking the rules seriously and applying them with care, but the whole idea of “hardship” that derives from the lot-shape, but potentially not from a family illness or from a sensible circumstance not foreseen in the zoning rules, seems to me to be not the very best system.

The BZA member who wants the apply the idea *particularly* strictly is, I think, misguided.  Better to apply energy & zeal to something more important and sensible.

posted by: robn on May 11, 2018  2:20pm

JH,

For the same reason that the owner can’t squeeze their car into the backyard (something I find hard to believe) they don’t have T-turn clearance coming sideways out of a garage…they’ll have to put doors in front. My guess is they’ll beg out of a lawsuit by offering to do something stupid like put in old tymee barn doors (inappropriate for this house).

posted by: Kevin McCarthy on May 11, 2018  3:09pm

I’ve sat through a fair number of BZA hearings. My experience is that hardship is generally not the deciding factor, notwithstanding the law. An application is likely to be denied if it is opposed by the neighbors, the alder, and/or the management team. Elsewise it is likely to be granted, particularly if neighbors and other stakeholders support it.

Matt Zwilling’s statement that “if you build anything, it needs a variance” is essentially accurate. Density and mixed land use were seen as bad things when the zoning ordinance was adopted. It really needs a re-write.

One clarification. Chris’ description of zoning law is generally accurate with regard to the types of variances discussed in the article. But the hardship does not have to involve a quirk in the property itself. The board often grants variances from building height restrictions so that a homeowner can add dormers to the building’s top floor. In addition, the board routinely grants use variances when the uses allowed under the zoning ordinance are not economically viable.

posted by: BenBerkowitz on May 11, 2018  4:15pm

I would love to see planners and alders start to be proactive about zoning that accommodates the addition of inlaw apartments. This living situation will become very appealing to many families as boomers start to age, the cost of living rises and couples with children and two jobs continue to need support from grandparents. This could bolster New Haven’s population and economy as well as this is the demographic that is already growing in NHV.

posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on May 11, 2018  4:17pm

robn,
I think you are likely correct. If the garage doors are proposed to face the street then that would be inappropriate.

posted by: Kevin McCarthy on May 11, 2018  8:58pm

Ben, I agree. But I suspect some of our neighbors in Westville and East Rock would be unenthusiastic about the prospect of nearby single family homes being modified to incorporate apartments.