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High drama plays out in variance requests


© St. Petersburg Times, published August 12, 2000

Probably if you're looking for a good time, you wouldn't think of a meeting of the Variance Review Board, but if you're willing to sit under lights strong enough for an operating room (bring sunglasses; the lights are actually to televise the meeting, so if it's a bad hair day, don't sit in the first or second row), there's a good deal of human drama and intrigue to be had.

You might want to bring a box lunch. Meetings start at 6:30 p.m. We arrived at 7:30, and the case we were interested in didn't come on till 10 -- at which point we bolted, not an option for the unpaid board members, who had four more cases to go.

This is the deal: To get a variance in the city -- that is, permission to build or add on to your house or garage or mother-in-law apartment in a way that would encroach on setbacks or height restrictions -- you have to appear before the board. In my neighborhood in South Tampa, where so much of this stuff is going on, setbacks are 25 feet in the front, 20 in the rear, 7 on the sides. Neighbors, who are notified by letter, can come in and object.

Or, if you've already built a violating structure, you may be appearing not at all by choice but because you've been red-tagged, probably with the help of a whistle-blowing neighbor. In the meeting last month, of the residential requests, four were for variances on something that had already been built.

Either way, you're supposed to meet certain criteria, that boiled down from the institutionalese are hardship and lack of interference with your neighbors' rights.

Take, for instance, a mother of two young children, from Tacon Street in South Tampa, clearly nervous, smiling tentatively at people in the audience. She pleaded her case for a room addition that a decade ago had started out as a deck -- then came a roof, then walls, and eventually it was a room. A room that, according to an unhappy neighbor, is a little too close for comfort -- less than 2 feet from his property line. The board passed around a photo -- not a professional one but clear enough for board member and commercial contractor Rebecca Smith to question whether the room had been built according to code. Request denied.

So, what does she do? Tear down the room?

Actually, yes. Or appeal to the City Council.

On the other hand, on Old Bayshore Way, an owner wanted to build a house bigger than the lot allowed, shrinking the front setback from 25 to 17 feet, the rear from 3 feet to zero and the side from 3 to 2 feet. Not a nail had yet been hammered. Jeffrey Connor, an architect and board member, argued that approving the variance would allow for a more graceful design with hidden detached garage and front porch. Request approved.

Also in South Tampa, a young couple with two children wanted to add a second story to their unattached garage for a bedroom or an office. (A bedroom? For whom?) Connor was at first leery, because it's Bayshore Beautiful, a neighborhood lower on the funk scale than that of a garage apartment he'd argued for on S Moody behind Bella's. He acquiesced when the owner stressed his house is far from Bayshore Boulevard and in a "transitional" neighborhood. Request approved.

"Where is the hardship?" Rebecca Smith kept asking. Shot down as the rest of the board voted yea, at one point she good-naturedly pleaded, "Can't you give me one?"

Clearly hardship means different things to different people. Today, wanting something and not getting it seems to be enough of a hardship.

John Dingfelder, a board member, acted as conciliator. Less concerned perhaps with concrete details than with human desire, he consistently looked for ways to make both the owner and the board happy. At the intermission, after Seminole Heights baker Mauricio Faedo's agent had been turned down, he approached my husband and asked, clearly with an eye toward reconciliation, "Mr. Faedo?"

"No," my husband replied. "I just like his bread."

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