Alamance County’s elected leaders have chosen not to relax one of the county’s development rules in order to permit one area resident to build a garage next to his home on the outskirts of Elon.
During a special hearing on Tuesday, the county’s board of commissioners narrowly failed to approve a variance that would’ve enabled James Dearmon of 2872 Springwood Court to build a two-car garage within seven feet of his next-door neighbor’s property line.
Dearmon had originally asked for this variance in order to get around a rule in the county’s subdivision ordinance that demands side setbacks no less than 10 feet in breadth. Under state law, the homeowner’s request had to win over at least four of the five commissioners to be approved. The commissioners ultimately voted 3-to-2 in favor of the request, leaving Dearmon just one vote shy of the supermajority he needed to obtain the variance.
In order to evaluate Dearmon’s request, the commissioners convened a special hearing as the county’s board of adjustment, in which capacity they’re able to hold trial-like, quasi-judicial proceedings on things such as special-use permits, waivers, and variances.
During this particular hearing, John Paisley. Jr., the chairman of Alamance County’s commissioners, urged his fellow board members to be mindful that, under state law, they are forbidden to issue a purely arbitrary ruling on a request like the one Dearmon had lodged.
“We can vary from the ordinances if there is good cause,” he added. “But you have to meet four requirements in order to have a variance.”
Paisley went on to note that, in order to meet the statutory criteria for a variance, a property owner must demonstrate a) a substantial hardship that results from a rule’s strict application, b) is specific to the property in question, and c) is not the result of his or her own actions.
The law also demands that the property owner’s proposed workaround must preserve the spirit and intent of the county’s land-use restrictions even if it doesn’t strictly adhere to their letter.
Tonya Caddle, the county’s planning director, told the commissioners that Dearmon’s request had failed this four-part test with the county’s planning board, which ultimately concluded that the property owner could overcome his alleged hardship simply by tweaking his plans for the garage.
“The planning board has recommended denial of this request,” she added, “based on other opportunities that could be reached on this property without causing hardships or unusual circumstances.”
Caddle nevertheless admitted that some of the alternatives which the planning board considered would make it more difficult to service a septic tank that’s situated at the back of the property.
Dearmon conceded as much when he, too, took the stand during Tuesday’s quasi-judicial hearing. The homeowner also argued that the garage’s proposed placement would minimize the potential impact of rain runoff on his neighbor’s property.
“It would need to be on that side,” he added, “so it won’t dump water on my neighbor’s land.”
Dearmon went on to point out that his proposed variance had clinched the support of the neighbor closest to the intended site of the two-car garage.
In the end, Dearmon’s case for a variance proved persuasive enough to commissioners Steve Carter, Bill Lashley, and Pam Thompson. The homeowner’s predicament seemed to strike a particular chord with Thompson, who acknowledged her sympathies ahead of that evening’s vote.
“Everybody is an individual, and everybody’s situation is totally different,” she reminded her colleagues, “and I think we need to look at each situation to meet the needs of the citizen.”
Thompson’s logic nevertheless failed to persuade commissioner Craig Turner. An attorney by trade, Turner insisted that the applicant hadn’t met the statutory requirements necessary to obtain a variance.
“I don’t see a big deal with a three-foot variance especially when a neighbor approves it,” he added, “but I regrettably can’t support the motion because I don’t think it meets the elements of the law.”
Turner’s misgivings were reiterated by Paisley, who in addition to being the board’s chairman, is also a practicing lawyer.
“I would like to give you the variance,” Paisley went on to inform Dearmon, “but I don’t think it complies with our requirements.”
The board’s subsequent 3-to-2 vote in favor of the request fell one vote shy of the four-fifths majority needed to approve a variance.