Anyone who knows me also knows that my biggest pet peeve
in the business is zoning — local ordinances tell you how big, how
many, where and what. Don’t get me wrong, I agree that land must
be developed in orderly fashion. But orderly according to whom?
The only way around zoning is to apply for a variance. This is the
relief you can earn from an ordinance that makes no sense when
applied to your situation. I have applied for them several times. For
a guy like me, a frustrated wanna-be attorney, it’s really cool.
“Ladies and gentlemen of the Zoning Board. Thank you very
much for your unbridled attention to my testimony and for the
lukewarm coffee in the hall outside. We are here tonight to discuss
with you the victimization… no, the despicable oppression that
this vile zoning scheme has brought upon my clients. They’re
sitting here next to me, the mother, the father, the cute little
girl. She’s nine, look at her closely. Look into her sad eyes as you
consider your vote.”
The trick is to appeal to their better angels, these men and
women of the zoning board. Members tend to come in a few
distinct flavors: You have
the Retiree who has been
on the board since before
anyone can remember. She’s
the one asleep at the end
of the table. Then you have
the Activist – the one who
hangs on every word you
say and peppers you with
clever questions. There’s the
Legal Eagle — an attorney
who enjoys playing judge
for a change. You have the
Conservationist who sits
next to the Activist and
I plead our case
and answer their
questions but the
whole thing is a
mind game. Our
story is a good one
and the clients
are doing as told,
never looks up from the plan set except to scowl. There’s the
Normal Guy, who smiles encouragingly and then votes you down
like a dog. You have the Volunteer — that’s the one who sits on
every committee in town from the Pine Tree Riot Bicentennial
Workshop to the Dumpster Fire Preparedness Unit. A truly
dedicated public servant.
And then there’s the one you pin all of your hopes on, the
Moral Compass. That’s the board member who looks lonely, a
clear minority. He appeals to his fellow members. “Do we actually
have the authority to deny this? It seems pretty reasonable and
meets all of our criteria,” he might say. “Of course, we can,” scoffs the
Activist. “We can do anything we want, then spin doughnuts in the
parking lot afterward. It’s our job to say no.” Hoo-boy.
THE FINISH NAIL
ORDER IN THE COURT
You can’t tell the players without a program
I plead our case and answer their questions but the whole
thing is a mind game. Our story is a good one and the clients are
doing as told, looking pathetic. “Let’s all remember why we are
here tonight. The Dingles need a bigger garage and it would be
a hardship if they didn’t get it. Everyone deserves a bigger garage.
These are good people, neighbors and patriots. Do it for them. Do
it for the daughter. She needs space to play and grow. Who cares if
we are a teensy bit over the setback line?”
Now it’s time for the other members of the public to weigh in.
They got notice in the mail and couldn’t help but come down to
butt in, which is why they are called abutters.
Either they never needed a variance for anything or they
already got theirs. Either way, they don’t want you to get yours.
“I’m opposed to this garage addition. They’ve already got a garage,
and I’m pretty sure they built it illegally. One day I come home and,
diggy doo, there it is. Did they get a permit? I never saw any permit!
No one showed me any permit!! Now they want a bigger one. I’m
against it!” The cacophony subsides and, ironically, this same man
will later politely wish the Dingles a good night as though this
exchange never took place.
The Board enters deliberations and it isn’t sounding good.
They talk about compromise but everyone is scowling. It’s nearly
midnight and fatigue is setting in. I tell the 9-year-old to stare at
them while holding her breath. Finally, the verdict is in. “Granted!”
the chairman declares with a rap of his gavel. “Granted, that is, upon
the successful completion of these 37 conditions we’ve attached
to the approval. You may have your six-inch setback variance.”
Meeting the conditions will take months and cost a fortune, but
I tell the Dingles that this is what victory in the zoning world looks
like. We won and that’s all that matters. This, my dear Dingles, is
Paul Morin is president of Tarkka Homes inc. in Weare, NH and a partner in the Abacus group, a lobbying and consulting firm in
Manchester, NH. In 2009, he was the first residential builder to receive the New Hampshire Construction Industry Ethics Award.
His “Misadventures and Observations of a Residential Home Builder” have appeared in several builder publications. He was
asked to write a satirical article for The Finish Nail and directs all offended readers to the publisher for apologies.