Mention “zoning board of adjustment” and you might get a clueless response, but this appointed local government body brings a limited but important level of flexibility to zoning.

Board of adjustment basics were covered in a 1 1/2-hour program at North Wilkesboro Town Hall Tuesday, largely to help people understand that the board’s pending decisions on a homeless shelter site will be based on findings of fact related to law and not opinions or emotional sentiment.

Ed Evans, ending a five-month term as interim town manager, said the session was held due to a lack of public understanding of how the board of adjustment will decide on requests for variances from two town zoning ordinance requirements. One prohibits homeless shelters from being within 250 feet of property zoned or used for residential purposes and the other says homeless shelters must have access to public sidewalks.

The Catherine H. Barber Homeless Shelter Board requested the two variances for a vacant lot at 108 Sparta Road (N.C. 18 North), where it wants to build a homeless shelter to replace the current much smaller shelter less than 2,500 feet away at 86 Sparta Road.

The shelter board also requested a conditional use permit (CUP), which the ordinance requires for homeless shelters. Requirements for a homeless shelter CUP include being more than 250 feet from residential property and having access to a sidewalk, so the permit can’t be issued if both variances aren’t approved first. Additional conditions can be required for a conditional use permit, as well as for a variance.

Under state law, a variance can be issued only if strict application of zoning rules would create “practical difficulties” or “unnecessary hardships.” The board must find that all of the following are true to determine that strict application of the rules would cause “practical difficulties” or “unnecessary hardships:”

• “no reasonable use of the property without a variance” is possible;

• hardships that would result from strict application are peculiar to the property due to factors such as the parcel’s size or topography;

• hardships didn’t result from actions of applicant or property owner;

• the requested variance is consistent with the zoning ordinance.

The proposed shelter site is a vacant lot next to Beulah Presbyterian Church in Fairplains. Numerous nearby residents and others connected there have voiced opposition to building a homeless shelter on the proposed site. Many of the 100 or so people who turned out for a July 11 board of adjustment hearing at town hall on the shelter board’s requests indicated they favored approval.

Because the number of people at the July 11 hearing exceeded what the fire code allows, the hearing was postponed to 6 p.m. Aug. 22 at the Stone Center in the Wilkes County Schools Administrative Building on Cherry Street, North Wilkesboro.

For the requests to be granted, at least four out of the five board of adjustment members must vote for this. A vote is expected on Aug. 22.

A board of adjustment is a quasi-judicial body and people wishing to speak at the Aug. 22 hearing must be sworn in first. The North Wilkesboro Board of Commissioners, which is legislative in function, appoints the town’s board of adjustment members.

Evans said that as a quasi-judicial body, the board of adjustment legally can only consider information given at a hearing. He said board members can and should visit property in question in their cases.

Appeals of board of adjustment decisions are made to Superior Court, with the results depending primarily on how well the board followed law in reaching its decisions.

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