For years now, brash, big new houses have been elbowing their way between modest older dwellings in Raleigh, often after a developer scraped off an existing abode to make room.
As happens with virtually all development issues in Raleigh, heated questions have ensued: How is that new house so close to my boundary? Is it supposed to tower over my house? How far from the street should it be?
It turns out the burden of these confrontations lay in part on the city's zoning inspectors. They were being asked to act as surveyors of boundaries, slope, and setback when they didn't have the license, the training, or the equipment to do it.
But according to a presentation at the December 5 city council meeting, all that's going to change. Licensed surveyors will start inspecting new houses on infill lots in Raleigh to make sure they're not defying codes by rising too high or intruding too much on neighboring spaces. The slope is important because an average of it figures into how tall a house can be built.
The change in zoning policy announced at the council meeting is an apparent victory for residents who have been complaining about the rise of sky-high mansions next to smaller homes in mature neighborhoods such as Ridgewood.
Earlier this year, a Raleigh family with a smallish 1949 ranch house on Churchill Road sued a developer who they said put up a twenty-eight-foot wall next to their home, blocking their sunlight and causing drainage problems. A Wake County Superior Court judge found enough merit in the family's case to proceed, but they chose not to. Their lawyer would not disclose the reason.
Indeed, some homeowners don't follow through on litigation over encroachment or other matters because it can cost a lot of money.
Tom Hosey, the city's director of development services, said at the council meeting that a longstanding policy asked city inspectors only to carry out a final inspection to make sure any new construction is up to snuff. The problem was that a feature contrary to code, or a nonconformity, was really expensive to fix once the house was nearly complete.
"We are adding an additional required zoning inspection at the time of foundation, a site inspection," Hosey said. "This inspection will serve not only as an additional compliance check valve, but also dramatically reduce costs if challenges are discovered. However, it will require the builders to allow for another inspection."
Having the city bring in licensed surveyors to check the boundaries, setback, and slope of a lot should go a long way toward preventing conflicts. And it will relieve zoning inspectors of the task.
"If the survey marks aren't there and they don't really know where the boundaries are, they are eyeballing it," Mayor Nancy McFarlane told the INDY after the meeting.
But it's going to cost more, Hosey said, estimating the cost at $200–$300 for plots that have already been surveyed and $500–$700 for new surveys.
The new process, slated to start March 3, was also discussed in a November 14 work session. Minutes for the meeting illustrate one of the changes that the October election brought to the council. Objections to the change came from a member who was generally friendly with the development community but is no longer on board.
"Councilor [Bonner] Gaylord expressed concern with the $400 to $500 cost estimate and inquired further about the nature of the inspection," the minutes say. A little later, "Councilor Gaylord emphasized that communication with engineers and developers should be a top priority of the City during the transition process."
With Gaylord gone, only at-large council member Russ Stephenson raised objections to the new policy last week, asking whether exceptions could be made in situations where the infill site seems to be flat and without boundary problems.
Not really, Hosey said. Using surveyors ensures consistency: "You have to actually be a licensed land surveyor in the state of North Carolina to perform these measurements. My zoning inspectors don't have the licensing, they don't have the training. They were just kind of making an educated guess on which to base the approval, which I don't think is best practice."
McFarlane noted that no council vote was required for the change in policy. The reason for last week's presentation was to prepare for complaints that are likely to reach council members, even though Hosey and crew have been reaching out to homebuilders.
"They're saying, 'There's going to be pushback on it, so you need to have my back,'" McFarlane said.