Sunday, October 1, 2023

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Graham, NC 27253
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Graham’s Board of Adjustments turns down variance for GFL trailer

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Graham has rarely had occasion to call its board of adjustments into service, and officials involved were clearly ill at ease during what turned into a laborious two-hour meeting on Tuesday night.

Part of the board’s difficulties stemmed from the absence of board chairman Dean Ward, who was out for minor surgery. The board’s vice chairman, Eric Crissman, was not reappointed to the board by the city council earlier this month, so the board was rather rudderless when it convened – with neither a chairman nor vice chairman to lead it.

The board had to overcome those procedural hurdles, which it finally did by appointing Michael Benesch, the longest-serving member, as the interim chairman for that night’s meeting.

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The only matter on the board’s agenda was a requested variance filed by GFL Environmental for a temporary building, a trailer, that it wants the city to sanction on its lot at 703 East Gilbreath Street.

Variances, which are rare at least in Graham, require the board to act in a “quasi-judicial” fashion, which means all witnesses must be sworn in; testimony is supposed to be fact-based (rather than opinion); and the board’s discussion is typically a little more formal than in other scenarios.

Five members of the seven-member planning board are designated as the board of adjustments.

In addition to the absence of the board’s chairman, one member of that five-member board – ETJ member Chad Huffine – asked to be recused from deliberations since he represents GFL as the engineer for the proposed variance project.

Even though a seemingly potential replacement member was present – the newest appointee, James Stockert, was on the dais – but the city’s attorney, reading from the city’s ordinance, said that as a “city member,” Stockert could not serve as a replacement for an ETJ member, i.e., Huffine.

Consequently, there were only four members available to serve as the board of adjustments. Under the city’s ordinances, that would also require a unanimous decision, since a variance requires a four-fifths vote of the board for approval. (Four-fifths of a 4-member board = 3.2, which would have to be rounded to a unanimous decision by the four members participating.)

Added to the board’s extended and tedious deliberations was that the city’s planner, Cameron West, and the attorney, Bryan Coleman, repeatedly asked and suggested that board members provide stated reasons for their actions, as they neared a point of finalizing a decision.

The essence of the request was that GFL was seeking a waiver, or variance, to allow a “small trailer” (modular unit) on its lot closer to the front than the city’s ordinances allow.

[Story continues below photo of trailer beside the office of GFL Environmental on East Gilbreath Street in Graham.]

The current ordinance requires a 100-foot setback from the front property line, but the existing GFL building, at 50 feet from the front, was built (in 1990) before that requirement went into effect (in 1999).

Still, city planner West recommended that the variance be denied.

Edmund Larsey, GFL’s on-site manager in Graham, explained that the company needed additional space for employees to have a break room. He suggested that the trailer had originally been placed under power lines on the back portion of the lot. Upon discovering that was not allowed, the trailer had been moved to the front beside the main building.

Larsey said that he had not considered it safe to have the building located farther away from the main building, in an area used for parking by the company’s fleet of large recycling and trash trucks.

Much information was repeated, partly because board members seemed to have difficulty hearing Larsey and understanding his distinctive foreign accent.

Members discussed whether, in fact, there were alternative locations on the lot to place the trailer that wouldn’t need a variance.

Some discussion focused on whether turning the trailer 90 degrees would make it more compliant with the setback more acceptable.

Still, the planning department’s objections continued to be raised by West. That evolved as the position of board member Jerome Bias, who adopted the position of the city’s planner in opposition to granting the variance.

At various times, board member John Wooten tried to formulate a motion, but West and Coleman repeatedly found fault that there were not enough stated justifications included within Wooten’s preliminary motion, which was intended to grant the variance.

Ultimately, apparently growing exasperated with the slow pace of the proceedings, Bias made a more succinct motion in favor of allowing the variance and stating reasons for its adoption, which passed muster with the attorney and planner.

[Story continues below photo.]

When the vote was first held on Bias’ motion, Benesch assumed it had passed 4-0, and did not ask for any nays.

However, Bias said he was not in favor of the motion he had proposed, but, in fact, wanted to vote against it.

As a roll call was held, that distribution became clear: three in favor (Benesch, Wooten, and board member Tony Bailey) with one opposed (Bias).

With that, Benesch declared the variance denied.

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