The no-go garage – Six-month ordeal continues to frustrate Nevada City resident
Martin Engel wants to build a garage in Nevada City.
The Banner Mountain resident knew he wanted to build a garage before he purchased a 1,500-square-foot, somewhat rundown house on Grove Street last summer.
Now, after six months of discussions and appearances before the Planning Commission and the City Council, Engel is still asking for the same thing.
“I am very frustrated,” Engel said at City Council meeting this week. “It’s an insurmountable bureaucracy. It seems arbitrary and unfair.”
“It’s not a guessing game,” Councilman Kerry Arnett responded. “The rules are right there.”
The city’s rules, though clear to insiders, aren’t always apparent to average folks, however.
The process even befuddled Engel, a diagnostic radiologist at Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital. Despite the best intentions of city staffers, Engel still can’t comprehend why it’s been so hard to construct a garage.
“I don’t understand the harm. I’m not ruining the neighborhood,” Engel said.
City officials don’t view Engel’s garage as evil. Instead, they are trying to comply with the city’s rules, prevent future problems, and treat everyone the same.
“The thing that’s hard is that from this side it’s fairly black and white,” City Planner Ed Martin said.
The city’s rules – laid out in the city’s 1970s-era zoning code – require that all structures be set back 30 feet from the road.
Engel knew that; he went into City Hall armed with a previously approved permit for a carport on the same site, asking what he needed to do to change the carport to a garage.
Engel says he was told that he needed a simple administrative permit for the change.
He paid the fee, filled out a form, and waited. When he heard nothing, he called Martin.
Messages to Martin were not returned for two months, Engel said.
Engel caught the city in a “transitional phase,” Martin said. The city’s former planner left at the beginning of the year and Martin did not begin his half-time position until mid-summer.
Puzzled, Engel asked city employees if a bribe was needed to spur a response. In retrospect, Engel admitted that may have engendered animosity from city officials.
When Martin was able to examine the permit, however, he saw that it required a new variance.
The original permit to build a carport was good only to build the specific carport approved, Martin said. Engel proposed building a garage atop of a shop that included a full bathroom.
Engel appeared before the Planning Commission in December, where his application was denied on a 3-2 vote.
Commissioners cited the size of the shop, the inclusion of the bathroom, and some of the materials chosen for construction, findings which Engel regards as arbitrary.
While commissioners were trying to hammer out an agreement, Engel asked them to stop, saying he wanted to appeal to the City Council.
With the request, Engel asked the City Council to do the work of the Planning Commission, a slight several members of council mentioned at this week’s meeting.
They overwhelmingly voted to deny Engel’s permit.
“I think you’re entitled to a garage,” said Councilman Steve Cottrell. “But I don’t think you’re entitled to (any garage you want.)”
The council pointed out the need to scale down the garage and ensure the shop would not be converted to a rental unit.
“I don’t understand why my proposal was rejected … no one from the public came to oppose it,” Engel said.
Engel’s application was rejected because city leaders did not think it met the two standards set out by state law, Martin said.
To receive a variance to a zoning code, a property must have “physical circumstances that distinguish the project site from its surroundings,” which would create a hardship for the owner.
“We’re not empowered to grant exceptions to the law; that’s called cronyism,” Martin said.
Engel plans to meet with city leaders, including Martin and City Manager Mark Miller, today to work out their conflict and agree on a garage that will work for Engel and the city.
All are hoping for an amicable resolution to the situation.
“I don’t take pleasure in embarrassing civil servants,” Engel said, who apologized to Martin for heated personal remarks at the City Council meeting.
“We’re just here to try to help the public,” Martin said.
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