Home renovation headache necessary in Fort Mill?

jmarks@fortmilltimes.comApril 23, 2013 

— Susan Achorn wanted to make her home more livable, but gave up after the headache she encountered getting plans approved.

She and town officials will have to disagree on how necessary that headache was.

Achorn, 69, and husband Randall, 70, moved to 103 Williamson St. eight years ago. The one bedroom, one bathroom mill house was in disrepair, she said, and numerous people have stopped by since complimenting work on the outward appearance.

Medical issues in recent years make the current bathroom difficult to use, so the Achorns contacted town staff about permitting a new bedroom and bathroom with a walk-in shower. The bedroom size had to be reduced twice, and when the Achorns rented a jackhammer to dig their footer for the bedroom, inspectors arrived saying a soil test – something Susan said was never mentioned during permitting – would be required.

“I thought that was kind of a shoddy way to do business,” she said. “I would have been glad to have done that – three months ago. But not now when I’ve got my yard all torn up.”

The soil test is required to ensure it can hold up under construction.

The Achorn’s new bedroom isn’t happening, now. Trusses and subcontractors were ordered, as was siding to arrive this week. Multiple changes in plans were “very difficult to deal with,” Achorn said, with even more complicated work ahead.

She doesn’t have the energy, she said, to deal with future problems.

“If you’ve got rules, lay the rules out when you first begin,” Achorn said. “We have done nothing but tried to improve our property, and it is so disheartening to live in a place that you love and only want to improve your home and at every turn you feel like you are hitting your head against a brick wall.”

Town Manager Dennis Pieper reviewed Achorn’s complaint last week. Pieper said he found staff to have worked with the resident according to existing codes.

“As with all concerns,” he wrote in an email response to the Fort Mill Times and Achorn, “I take them very serious and certainly look for any opportunities to streamline and better our processes.”

Joe Cronin, assistant town manager and planning director, said the first zoning request came to the town March 14. A site plan, typically required for all new construction and additions, wasn’t submitted.

“All we had was a 30-year-old plat and a field drawing,” Cronin said. “We agreed to use this information, pending field verifications, in order to spare the homeowner the cost of having a new plat prepared.”

The addition as originally proposed would’ve lacked three feet of needed side yard setback, violating town ordinance. Options were to request a variance from the Zoning Board of Appeals or revise the application. A revised application still wasn’t compliant. The third and final version was.

“The modifications required during the application process were neither arbitrary nor unreasonable,” Cronin said. “Absent these revisions, the proposed addition would have been non-compliant with the zoning code, and the request would have been denied.”

Staff also found building officials to have played by the rules on the soil test. Options were to dig six to eight additional inches for the footer or have the soil test done. Staff members say they’re sorry the resident was disheartened, but town code is in place to protect homeowners and need to be followed.

Town Councilman Larry Huntley said Monday that Achorn isn’t the first person upset over town building and code rules, or the way they’re administered. Yet, he said, the nature of work for building and codes officials has to be considered.

“Sometimes we’re going to have to tell people something they don’t want to hear,” Huntley said.

The councilman also has personal experience wishing enforcement had been in place. Sometime 15 or 20 years ago, Huntley said, work was done on his home where windows weren’t properly installed. A neighbor had the same thing happen several years later and the town ordered work stopped until it was fixed.

The neighbor had a temporary inconvenience.

“Every window I had rotted out,” Huntley said.

The challenge, town leaders say, is to hit the line where rules are being enforced and helpful without undue burden on builders or homeowners, but also with attention to avoiding future problems. A line they hope they’ve hit in this instance.

“Basically I think we should be there to help and not hinder them,” Huntley said.

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