It’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission, which is the least generous explanation one might reach to answer why, in recent months, two houses — one in Hillcrest, one in the Heights — got to the framing and completion stage with zoning violations and inspection problems. A stop work order was issued in June on one project; the other may go before the Board of Adjustment in August.
Then last week, a condominium developer got in trouble with the city. The city revoked the builder’s permit midway through the project, saying construction violated city airspace. Monday, a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction requiring the city to reissue the permit, but will schedule hearings on the airspace rights.
Fences too high, footprints too large, two-story buildings set too far back and blocking the neighbors’ light, and the problem downtown — what does it add up to? Is it a trend — build to the max to enhance a property’s value and hope to get an OK on the back end — or rare and unintentional?
How many homes might be getting away with violations is “a hard thing for anyone to know,” City Director Stacy Hurst says. “My fear is that what we know about may be the tip of the iceburg.”
Building codes manager Chuck Givens, however, said Monday he believes inspections catch “99 percent” of zoning deviations, and that the current rash of problems is unusual.
The city issues some 2,000 building permits a year for new construction and residential renovation and additions; it employs two building inspectors, who make sure footing and framing meet code and match the permit plan. When zoning problems come to light, it’s often because of complaints by neighbors.
Minor deviations from code go to the Board of Adjustment. The city has dealt more strictly with builder Gary Pursell and partner Larry Chisenhall, who overbuilt on one of four lots they own in the 4400 block of I Street in Hillcrest. The footprint of the house exceeded the percentage of lot coverage they set forth in their PDR (planned development, residential); the city is requiring them to go back to the Planning Commission.
Complaints by neighbors, after the I Street house was framed, that the house appeared to exceed height and setback limits triggered an inspection that caught the lot coverage problem, and a stop work order was issued. Pursell and Chisenhall must submit a new plan by Friday for August’s planning board meeting, and is working with Hillcrest Residents Association and property owners on the street to craft a compromise for the remaining three houses on roof heights, set backs and unfinished areas (the first house has a 650-square-foot basement, with windows and deck, that developers did not count toward the square footage total agreed on).
On Country Club, partners Tony Dilday and Rob Richardson attached a two-story carport (it houses guest quarters) to a residence they’ve remodeled at 5208 Country Club. Their plans submitted to the city said the carport would stand alone. As built, the carport/guest quarters are 7 feet too close to the rear lot line, city planner Dana Carney said.
A lack of inspectors didn’t play a role in the problems at the Country Club house — it passed footing and framing inspections.
The developers will have to go before the Board of Adjustment, but are not on the agenda as of yet. Calls left with them were not answered before the Times went to press.
“It’s unfortunate that it got as far as it did before we were made aware of it,” Dana Carney, the city employee who works with the Board of Adjustment, said of the Country Club house. “A more informed public is an advantage to us. We need eyes to help keep up with what’s going on out there.”
No one in the Heights neighborhood would speak on the record for fear of rocking the fragile alliance forged by big and small house owners to create the Heights Neighborhood Association. But they expressed fears that the Board of Adjustment will not require completed structures to be removed. Two residents said they’d like to see the Board of Adjustment tell a builder in violation to tear something down as a warning to other developers that it means business.
But Andrew Francis, chair of the Board of Adjustment, said the board has in the past required owners to remove structures. In April, the board required the owner of a house at 22 Carriage Creek to scale back a retaining wall he’d built at considerable expense; it exceeded a 5-foot height limitation. “It was no simple task,” Francis said; the wall was reinforced with rebar and concrete.
Francis had other examples: The board required the removal of a deck on a house on Kavanaugh that had crossed a property line, and required a bank, also on Kavanaugh, to rebuild a front wall that was too high.
“What we have told people repeatedly at the board, if you don’t comply with the city’s ordinances in your construction, you do so at your own risk.”
The real problem may be that what’s legal is often not what people want. For example, the house on I Street was to have a 35-foot limit on its roof, which it does from the street. The rear of the house, however, exceeds that limit by several feet and irked the neighborhood. A new house at the corner of Spruce and Country Club towers over neighboring houses because it was built straight up to the 35-foot limit and roofed flat, creating more mass. A wall along one side of a home on Beechwood — developer Pursell’s house, in fact — is 13 feet tall on the neighbor’s side, but only 6 feet on the Pursells’ side, meeting a variance limit granted by the Board of Adjustment. Neighbors have complained that a house being remodeled on Longfellow has switched side yard and entrance locations, but the city has no authority over that. And so on.
And while she sounded skeptical that only a couple of houses are in violation of city zoning laws, she added, “maybe it’s just a string of bad luck.”
“To me, there’s a lot of gray” in what constitutes a zoning violation, City Director Hurst said. She cited the basement of the I Street house; it’s not heated or air-conditioned now, so its considerable square footage is not counted toward the limit promised by the developer, but with windows and a deck, it invites finishing out.
The city Tuesday reissued a permit to Arkansas Riverview Development LLC, which is remodeling and adding to the former Arkansas Bar Foundation building east of the Doubletree Hotel on Markham. The city said the developers were building in city airspace over Garland Street and next to the Doubletree Hotel, which should have had first right of refusal to build in its airspace. City Manager Bruce Moore said he hopes the city can work something out between the parties, though the city will fight the injunction. “This is really not standard mode of conduct here,” Moore said. “We have a pretty good system in place.”
Hurst said there’s “some concern” by the city directors that the city has only two inspectors. Many city departments also have unfilled positions. “We rely on those vacancy savings to balance the budget,” she said.