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Building permit dispute continues to burn

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As of Monday, June 10, the Carbondale Board of Adjustment is down a member. Meredith Bullock resigned, effective immediately, in order to remain in the room during a public hearing from which she’d recused herself.

Board of Adjustment member Mark Chain, who’d also recused himself from overseeing the appeal of an administrative decision regarding a building permit for 728 Euclid Ave., departed without incident.

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Bullock and Chain were both parties to the appeal in question that night.

“I joined the Board of Adjustment because I had no idea this would happen again. I am resigning, effective this minute,” Bullock said.

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By “this,” she was referring to Pat Kiernan’s proposed house plans, the Town of Carbondale staff’s decision in March 2017 to grant him a building permit to finish the first floor of that plan and the 18 neighbors who appealed that decision the same day it was issued.

It’s a years-long saga, and the tension was palpable in the Town Hall during what turned into a four-and-a-half hour meeting. There was 50 minutes of procedural bantering before the hearing even began.

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“Can we get on with the hearing?” a seemingly frustrated Jeff Dickinson, who chaired the meeting, quipped before adding, “We don’t want TV drama here.”   

When all was said and done — both Kiernan and the neighbors, as they were referred to throughout the hearing, gave 35-minute testimonies and 10-minute rebuttals before public commentary — the board agreed to a continuance for Aug. 19.

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Kiernan agreed to a July 1 deadline to submit new design concepts that, while not altering the foundation or floor plan, would better meet Old Town Residential qualitative standards that reflect the current aesthetic of the neighborhood, one of the appellants’ major concerns, alongside the size and lack of parking for the project.

Carbondale Planning Director Janet Buck offered several specific design options that would potentially accomplish that goal. One of Kiernan’s chief complaints is that he’s not been given actionable direction from the town.

“We look at projects on a case by case basis, but we look at mass of scale —  smaller components rather than one large mass — and we ask that buildings be broken up with various methods, including facade, modulation — to avoid long, expansive walls — setbacks for upper floors, varied rooflines, changes in building material, breaking up facades with architectural features such as dormers … and gables,” she said. “We’re not designers, but that’s what we see people using.”

Buck admitted that, while she and Building Official John Plano originally agreed that Kiernan’s proposed 4,445-square-foot house met the district’s dimensional requirements and thus issued the building permit, she did have reservations about the design.

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“Basically, the floor plan showed six bedrooms and six and a half baths, and that’s if you consider the family room a bedroom,” she said. “I was concerned about that and submitted a memo. It lends itself to more intense use, such as a boarding house. In hindsight, do I wish I stood my ground a little more in terms of the use and design? Probably.”

In his testimony, Mark Mahoney, who serves as a spokesperson for the 17 other signatories on the appeal, echoed the repeated allegation that the property would in fact likely result in noncompliant occupation.

“We believe that this structure is laid out and arranged as a boarding house,” he said. “The upper floor has bedroom suites with sitting rooms that could be a studio apartment, basically. It’s just in this environment, with the pressure on housing, if you have six bedrooms and 6.5 baths, we believe this is ripe for abuse.”

He did not accuse Kiernan outright of ill-intent, but he did add that future owners of the house may bend the rules. In fact, several appellants spoke about their fears for the future of the neighborhood should Kiernan’s proposal receive a building permit. 

Frank Norwood was one such appellant.

“I border the property right across the alley,” he said. “If this is approved, you’re opening up an incredible can of worms for anybody who wants to scrape a lot [and] build something on a new lot that wants to do the same thing as this multi-family building. And this will be the demise of what we treasure in Carbondale as a very pleasant place to live.”

Kiernan, for his part, emphasized that the future is paramount to his design plans — and had a moment of emotion when recalling the effects of the Lake Christine Fire.

“It became vividly clear that this is not the same valley when I arrived in ‘87, nor is it the same planet I was born on in ‘56,” he said while seeming to hold back tears. “I can’t, in good consciousness, build a house that will burn the planet for years to come. So my designs are net zero.”

As for his planned usage, Kiernan maintains that he plans to live in the house himself, ideally in a co-housing arrangement. Furthermore, he contends that the “subjective standards” imposed on his circumstance aren’t legal.

“Different people have different senses of what’s pretty,” he said. “The ‘spirit of the code’ creates a shadow code, and if the review is not based on objective standards, it amounts to amending the code. You can see how that would be a slippery slope.”

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