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Martinsburg zoning rules corner house

April 09, 2006|By ROBERT SNYDER

MARTINSBURG, W.VA.

Bruce Browning said he wasn't cutting any corners when he failed to get an engineering survey for a house he built at the end of a cul-de-sac in one of Martinsburg's newest upscale subdivisions.

But bringing the structure into compliance with the city's zoning ordinance might take cutting a great big corner.

Right off the side of the attached two-car garage.

The city's Board of Zoning Appeals rejected a request last week by Browning, a Shepherdstown contractor, for a variance for the 2,800-square-foot house he constructed in the Gallery subdivision that one board member said juts sharply inside a required 25-foot front yard setback.

"If you look at the house, the garage sticks off the face of it about 6 feet," said board member Lisa Dall'Olio, adding the group was sorry for Browning's plight, but had no choice but to reject the builder's variance request.

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Browning said the mistake came when he and his son started their measurements from the curb rather than where the sidewalk would be located, causing the house to list deep into the setback.

"I had no idea where to pull it from," he said. "It made sense to pull it from the curb, so I went with it."

Browning, who said he builds about eight to 10 custom-made houses a year and recently completed one that measured about 11,000 square feet, said he bought the lot from Orchard Development Company LLC as a project for his son, and never has made this type of mistake before.

"I have to do this a lot with every house I build," Browning said. "It's not like me to put the house in without looking at the rules and regulations."

Dall'Olio said there were no criteria by which the city's planning staff could approve Browning's variance request.

"There's no way for us to waive (the house) the way the zoning is written," Dall'Olio said.

According to the city's zoning ordinance's conditions for granting an appeal, a variance can be granted if there were special features that make the lot different from other lots, if allowing the exception would not give the applicant a special privilege, if the rules created a hardship or if the circumstances didn't happen as a result of anything the applicant did.

"It was my mistake," Browning said. "The buck stops here."

Despite the mistake, Browning said he anticipated receiving approval of his request.

"I thought they would give me the variance, honestly," he said. "When they didn't, it just blew me out of the water."

Browning said he was not been active in the construction of the house because he has been caring for his wife, who is ill, and had left much of the work to his son.

Tim Shaw, owner of Orchard Development, said he wasn't opposed to the house staying where it is, and the developer's design committee submitted a letter in March to Browning letting him know it approved a revised sketch from Browning that showed the error.

"I do not feel, as a developer, that it detracts from the whole community," said Shaw, adding the mistake is even more profound because Browning is not a large builder who easily can absorb the cost to move the house.

"If it was one of the big builders, you'd say this was a bad situation, but it's a small builder, and that makes it tragic," Shaw said. "I wish there was something I could do to help, but I don't know what it could be."

Browning said efforts to make the best of a bad situation include taking off part of the garage and converting it into a small breakfast room. Because subdivision requirements state that each house built in the Gallery subdivision requires a garage, Browning might be able to reattach one large enough to house a single car on the other side of the house if there is enough space on the lot.

At present, there's not much room to pull a car into the property's driveway, Dall'Olio said.

Other options include challenging the board's decision in Berkeley County Circuit Court or tearing the house down, Browning said.

"It would be a catastrophe to have to tear a house down because of an encroachment," Browning said.

Browning said there is one other option he wishes was available to him.

"If I had it to do over again, I wouldn't have bought that lot," he said.

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