M’hall builder appeals Zoning Board decision

By MARLAN JONES,

A hearing was held Friday January 12, to discuss the appeal of the Mendenhall Zoning Board’s decision to deny Jaron Priest’s request for an 18 feet variance on his building project.

The project encompasses three homes to be built on the lot located at 612 North Main Street.

During the original zoning hearing held on December 22, 2017, Priest explained that he was asking for a variance for the front of the houses. According to the building codes, the homes had to be at least 30 feet from the right-of- way. Priest was requesting a variance of 18 feet since his current building plans would have the homes sit 12 feet from the right of way. He also explained that he intended to build three homes. The middle home will be his, and the two additional houses will be for sale.

Following discussion the zoning board ultimately cast a majority vote to deny the variance request. After the zoning board’s ruling, Priest was informed of his right to appeal the decision to the Mendenhall Board of Aldermen.

The appeal meeting was originally scheduled for January 9 but was rescheduled after an error was made on the property address. A special meeting was held to reschedule the meeting to January 12 allowing for proof of publication. Due to technical difficulties by the newspaper the advertisement of the hearing was not run in the January 11 publication. Board attorney Wesley Broadhead was not present at the meeting on January 12. According to Mayor Todd Booth, Broadhead advised against holding the meeting without proof of publication.

Alderwoman Sandra Weeks said the issue had been dragged on long enough and many of the board members agreed. The motion to conduct the meeting without a proof of publication passed unanimously with Alderman Robert Mangum being the only alderman to vote against. The room was filled with many of the same citizens who attended the zoning hearing.

The most outspoken since the start of the process has been Cathy McCormick, the sister in-law of Alderman Donnie Thomas. The two live in the old Fortenberry home, which is located across the street from Priest’s building site.

Priest presented his situation to the Board of Aldermen. He explained that he started the project with intention of building four homes. Priest explained that he was told by city officials that his initial plans were up to code only to later be told they were not.

This led to his decision to build three homes instead of four. He explained that the change from four homes to three cost him $30,000. He then told the board that it would cost him $48,000 to move his homes back the required feet to comply with the building codes. Priest said at this stage the issues revolved around finances.

Alderman Tim Gray asked Priest about the information he received from city officials. Booth explained that Priest was supposed to get a building permit “like everyone else does” before ever installing house pads and doing dirt work. Priest said that on October 19 he made attempts to contact building inspector David Miller, who was unavailable.

 He explained that he eventually spoke with City Clerk Tiffany Wallace before speaking with Booth. Priest said that Booth gave him his initial setbacks for his homes, and that he was not informed about the setback error until Donnie Thomas approached him at the building site months later. 

Booth said he had no recollection of the exchange. Priest said he also received wrong information from David Miller.

Priest said, “I’m actually thankful for Donnie because if hadn’t told us then we would have had three houses built and would have needed to tear them all down because they were wrong.”

Miller explained that he printed out copies of the entire heritage district building codes and gave them to Priest. He clarified that he did give Priest incorrect information in regard to setbacks.

He said, “I told him his right of way was 25 feet when it actually was supposed to be 30 feet.” Miller also said that if Priest had gone by the setbacks he gave him he would only need a 5 foot variance instead of 18 feet. Priest stated that after measuring the property again he only needed a variance of 10 feet.

Following the discussion the board began asking questions. Thomas questioned the $30,000 cost to change from building four houses to three. Priest explained that it required additional dirt work, and the house he anticipated building is no longer available for sale.

Alderman Robert Mangum described Priest’s situation as “unfortunate.” He said, “You were told one thing and then they backed up on it. I’m from the old school and your word is what you go on.” He also addressed the issue of the homes becoming rentals. He stated that it was against the law to try to prevent Priest from renting the homes once they are built.

Alderwoman Jana Miller was undecided on the issue and urged the board to search for a solution that satisfied everyone. She stated that she had no part in giving Priest any information concerning the setbacks of his homes. She then said, “I’m all for the zoning board’s decision because they have gone by their guidelines, but if we have done him wrong then we need to make this right.”

Booth urged the board to keep in mind that if Priest had gotten permits before he started, he would have had the correct information. Booth said, “If he would have gotten the permits like everyone else does then we wouldn’t be here.”

Gray described the situation as “a perfect storm.”