What’s Wrong With All These Variances?

There’s been a lot of talk about the county commission’s practice of routinely granting variances, and especially since Chairman Stan Helton’s comments, as reported in the News Observer.

What seems to have triggered it is that in two consecutive meetings, two weeks apart, the commission granted variances in the face of strong opposition from the community associations involved. I don’t have the details of the first one at hand – too many fish to wrap – but as I recall, it was a subdivision up on Davenport Mountain, which is rather high and steep, The community association pointed out that if the variance were approved, they would no longer be able to build a retaining wall that they anticipated they would need for their road. The variance was approved nonetheless.

The second was in Hemptown Heights, a small, older subdivision up off the old highway, near Wright Mill Road. The community association had safety and parking concerns. The association representative asked, “All we’re saying is where do we draw the line? Where does it stop? The code is the code and we’re just asking to maintain what the code says.” The newspaper quoted Chairman Helton as saying, “If we don’t allow variances in this county, we’ll bring the building industry, which employs a lot of good, local people, … to a screeching halt and I’m not going to.”

That’s pretty much confirming what everyone has known for some time – this did not begin with Mr. Helton’s administration – if you hire a local builder, you can pretty much do anything you want. That’s good news for people who want to do something wrong. I remember one case a few years ago where the commission allowed someone to build – I think within five feet – of the Forest Service boundary, over the Forest Service’s strong official objection.

But it’s bad news in the long run.

In the first place, it’s probably an exaggeration to say sticking with the code would bring the building industry to a screeching halt. A lot of these jobs are remodels, not new construction. I suppose you could look back and see how many variances were approved vs. other building activity, but my seat of the pants guess is that it’s a small percentage of overall activity on a dollar basis.

The big problem is that this has been going on for so long, and has become so notorious, that it’s giving Fannin County a bad name. A few years ago, one of the local attorneys told me that there were now more than enough aggrieved parties to mount a class action suit, and that he thought it would easily prevail. In view of that, Mr. Helton’s comments may have been incautious, although you have to admire his candor.

I was involved peripherally in one of these a few years ago, under the Simonds administration. My brand new next door neighbor wanted a variance to build bigger, too close to the road. It didn’t really affect me, one way or the other. But it maybe did affect my other closest neighbor, whose house is across that road, because she has a little cabin and the big remodel across the road was going to be looming over her. That makes a cabin hard to sell. We knew something was happening, because the builder came and ripped the whole front of the house off. You don’t need a permit for that in Fannin County, or so we were told.

So … we kind of kept watching for the variance request. It dropped on a Friday afternoon, and was placed on the commission agenda for the following Monday’s meeting. No notice to nobody. So I called my neighbor and told her she might want to come up and look the situation over before the meeting. It turned out she was out of town on business, and could not return by Monday. She asked me to ask the commission if they would table the matter, so she could come up and have a look. The builder – who, by the way, is a really good guy – was allowed to speak at length about the project, and in my opinion rather understated the extent and impact. The commission would not put me on the agenda. I had to wait for public comment, and after I (briefly) commented, the matter was tabled. I thought it was tabled until the next regular meeting, but the commission had a called meeting – as I recall on the following Wednesday – and the variance was approved. Total elapsed time? Less than a week. That was my education in how these things are done in Fannin County.

So, what’s the problem?

The problem is that we’re getting a really bad reputation as a place to buy a mountain cabin. What do you suppose my neighbor, or the people in Hemptown Heights, or the people up on Davenport Mountain, say when their friends ask them if Fannin County is a good place to buy a cabin? I’ll tell you what I’m hearing more often than I might like, “I’d go to Union County. They respect the second home owners, and they’re building a lot of great community facilities with their SPLOST money – dog parks, community centers, great new farmers market, lots of stuff.”

That’s going to hurt our building industry a whole lot more than losing the few jobs created by variances. Of course, thinking about the long run has never been very popular here. This is the county that shut down the Fannin Future project, which was run out of the Fanning School of Government at UGA, because the future was having too much to say.

This did not begin with Mr. Helton, and it is apt to be continued after he is no longer in office. No doubt it makes the builders happy. No doubt annoying our remaining builders is going to cost more votes than outraging the second home owners. That’s because most of them don’t vote. It’s baffling to me. I used to say to my customers, “Maybe if this is the place you want to spend the rest of your life, you ought to vote here. Try to make sure it’s still the place you want to spend the rest of your life when the time comes. It’s really easy to vote absentee.”

Did they listen? Hardly. That day may be coming, but it isn’t here yet. “I may not get there with you!” But the day of reckoning will surely come when the second home owners and retirees realize that what they have is taxation, but it sure isn’t representation.

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