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Witt: Considering variances and curb appeal

The planning and zoning board was confronted with a bit of a conundrum at its last meeting, July 10.

Faced with a preliminary development plan for property on North Maple Street, which sought to allow the placement of three storage buildings, it seemed obvious some members of the board may have had some reservations about allowing the placement of such buildings on a major entry corridor to the city.

North Maple is not presently known or recognized as a particularly desirable pathway to the city because of the nature of many of the buildings and sites there, and it would behoove the community to work to improve the aesthetics of the area as much as possible.

Of course, property owners have every right to try to make the most of their property, just as the proposal for the storage units sought to do.

But few could deny storage units might not be the most pleasing use that could be made of land which is now sitting vacant with remnants of a building that formerly occupied the site.

This preliminary plan presented several examples of poor planning.

The buildings are turned sideways to Maple Street, not exactly a great way to address a thoroughfare.

As with all storage building projects, the majority of the site, excluding the buildings themselves, would be mostly covered with paving. In this case, the applicants requested the vehicular areas be allowed as gravel areas only, not hard paving.

While neither option — paving or gravel — is highly desirable, gravel areas are probably going to generate a good deal of rock dust over a long period of time.

Finally, in order to maximize the number of storage units on the site, variances were permitted for the building setbacks. The normal setback from the street right-of-way is 50 feet. One building will be situated 38 feet back and two of the buildings 26 feet.

So, not only will the buildings not be facing the street, they will be much closer to the street than would be allowed under regulations without variance.

While “variance” is not specifically defined in the city’s zoning ordinance, it would seem there should be some rational, reasonable determination of what the word actually means or allows.

Perhaps variances should be limited to 10 percent or so, but allowing variances of nearly 50 percent practically approaches a whole new zoning classification.

Not only do variances, especially such large ones, abrogate the intent of zoning, they open precedents which are likely to be cited by others wanting to take the maximum advantage of the opportunities of their property.

The one redeeming factor of the plan for the development of this property is the final development plan will require landscaping in accordance with current requirements.

Hopefully, this will mitigate somewhat the stark appearance of a group of storage buildings.

And while the subject of landscaping is up, now would be a good time for the city to upgrade the landscaping standards and require that any time a business is closed, no new business will be allowed to occupy the same site without bringing the site up to current standards regarding landscaping, signage, etc.

Had such a requirement been in place earlier, the vast blacktopped car sales location on the Bypass that was once home to Paul Miller, might have re-opened with some pleasing trees and shrubbery to alleviate a monotonous sea of paving.

Chuck Witt is a retired architect and a lifelong resident of Winchester. He can be reached at chuck740@bellsouth.net.