Too close for comfort? Rebuilding on lots in historic district a violation of town’s zoning laws

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By Cindy Simpson

When Harriman was formed more than a century ago, lots were sold in small sizes.

Many homes, including large Victorian ones in the Cornstalk Heights historic district, were often built close together with small yards.

In many instances, those conditions would violate the city’s present zoning ordinances.

“If my house burned down today, I couldn’t rebuild it,” said Buddy Holley, a Harriman City Council member who lives in the Cornstalk Heights district.

“I could not build back on the same footprint without a variance. The setback on the west side of my house and workshop and my garage does not meet the back setback rules defined in the new code,” he said. “My house and garage were built about 1937.”

While existing buildings are grandfathered, construction such as the one Holley described can be difficult without a variance, at least building back to the same footprint of buildings razed or destroyed in fire.

It’s an issue that frustrates council member Kenyon Mee, who wants to see changes in zoning to allow people on such lots to rebuild to the same footprint.

He and Holley are seeking revising the codes to include wording to address such problems, particularly on the old lots.

Lots were sold at 25 feet when the historic town was founded, and many people bought double lots for their homes, Holley explained.

Officials have said the inability to rebuild is a major reason properties have been abandoned.

Harriman building inspector Maria Nelson said the problem is not as recurring as some might believe. Since 1982, 76 variance requests have been heard. Twenty-three of those were denied.

“That is maybe a quarter of variance requests,” she said.

Nelson said codes require structures to be 10 feet from the side of a property line or 20 feet between each structure. And, she added, the Harriman Board of Zoning and Appeals is flexible.

“The BZA has been very lenient and has gone down to 5 feet (from the property line) in some instances,” Nelson said.

For example, Harriman Regional Planning Commission Chairman Allen Williams rebuilt Oasis, a gas and convenience store in north Harriman, closer to an existing laundry facility.

Nelson said Williams obtained a variance, but had to create fire-rated walls because of it.

Council members in a recent meeting discussed ways that people could build back, including meeting more costly and stronger fire codes to answer any potential hazards of building in close proximities.

Holley believes paying more to meet such codes would be a small price to pay for someone determined to build back their home.

“Like my home, if I want to build it back in the same style it is in, so I pay $5,000 more,” he said. “They can build on the same footprint. That is great.”

Nelson said she understands wanting to allow people to build back to their footprint, but each case is unique.

In an incident in which a Carter Street home was destroyed by fire, density requirements protect the best interests of neighbors, who have dealt with the problems associated with the property for some time even before the fire.

“She would not be allowed to build back the house, regardless of the footprint as there is still an existing primary structure,” Nelson said in an email. “Not until the lot was entirely cleared would someone be able to build back.”

Harriman’s zoning laws allow only one primary structure on the property. Cases such as the Carter Street one, where both a home and apartments are on the lot, violate that.

Nelson told city officials the city has long had complaints about the apartment residents parking in other neighbors’ lots, walking through yards and other safety concerns that deal with density issues.

Garbage has long been a problem and continues to be so since the fire, Nelson said.

She’s taken the owner to court on various violations, including unsafe building abatement.

Harriman City Judge Charles Crass gave the owner time to erect a fence. That has not been done, and the property owner will be fined $50 a day starting July 11 if the matter remains unresolved.

The owner is supposed to also take steps to prevent illegal entry onto the property.

Officials have said the property owner has told them the insurance will not pay to clean up the home.

One resident who previously voiced concerns said she now fears retaliation. She has complained to the council about the home and the burned remains still standing months after the fire.

She also discussed the harassment the neighborhood has had from some of the apartment dwellers, the number of police calls to the apartments for issues such as disturbing the peace, pets allowed to run amok and the number of people living in one apartment.

Officials spoke of having the health officer visit the burned home and apartments, as well as possibly turning the case over to Harriman City Attorney Harold Balcom for further action in Roane County Chancery Court.