By John Schaffner

When a large tree fell on the Peachtree Park home of Hong S. Wills during the September storms, she saw it as an opportunity to improve her 1949 residence by replacing a demolished screened porch with an enclosed master bedroom suite and a second garage.

Because she planned to add an enclosed, heated and air-conditioned living space, she was required to seek a zoning variance from the city.
If she had simply rebuilt the porch as it had been, she could have avoided the variance — and some drama. In fact, by the time her case was done, it could serve as an guide to the frustration and confusion that can come to those seeking zoning variances in Atlanta.

Wills had no idea that she was embarking on a city zoning process that would result in unusual procedures and votes by the Neighborhood Planning Unit-B board.
Her saga started because the structure for the screened porch did not conform to the city’s R-4 zoning requirement of 7-foot setbacks from the side and back property lines. The side-yard setback of her structure was 3.5 feet and the rear setback 2.5 feet.
When the tree fell, it wiped out the screened porch, but left unscathed a 5-inch-thick poured concrete slab floor that is built into the side of the house. The slab was strong enough to withstand the force of the falling tree without even a small crack. But Wills thought is was not attractive.
“It looks pretty ugly from the outside. I have to do something with it,” Wills said.
“The screen porch had little utility,” she said. The kitchen and dining room are on the other side of the house. To get to that porch, she had to walk through one of the three small bedrooms. “It was not really useful.”
Zoning laws have changed greatly since her house was built. Add to that a review process for zoning variances that involves asking the city, seeking approval from the neighborhood association for the area where the house is located, then seeking approval from the appropriate Neighborhood Planning Unit (NPU) before finally going before the city’s Board of Zoning Adjustment.
Wills, a mergers and acquisitions attorney with the Smith, Gambrell & Russell law firm, had her plans and variance request turned down by the Peachtree Park Civic Association despite letters of approval from her neighbors.
Her application next went to the NPU-B Zoning Committee, which approved it unanimously. Wills said she was told that unanimous approval by the committee meant her request would be approved automatically by the NPU board. But when it came before the full NPU-B board on Jan. 5, Wills was shocked to discover that her request would be the subject of debate.
And it was debated. After much discussion, the NPU-B board twice split in pair of  identical 9-9 tie votes, with two abstentions. The unusual votes came on two different motions—one to deny the variance, the other to approve it.
Wills had been told to show up at the board meeting just in case there were some questions to be answered. “I was so surprised,” she said, “I wasn’t even really prepared.”
During meeting, the neighborhood’s opposition was expressed by Jason Kendall, president of the Peachtree Park Civic Association. “The current space … is not enclosed. We feel that setting that precedent, to just allow someone to expand this space … encroachment.”
Kendall said the association had no issue with rebuilding the porch the way it had been, even though it would extend to the two-foot setback, because it would be an open-air space, as opposed to enclosed space.
The main discussion issue became that the city’s criteria for granting a zoning variance requires that the applicant must show a “hardship,” an argument forcefully made by board member Sally Silver, who has dealt with city zoning for years.
Wills argued her situation was a hardship because the foundation of the porch would be an eyesore if left untouched, yet would potentially damage the house if removed.
She also said she needed to expand her home and that building in other directions would require the removal of large healthy trees, which the city seeks to protect through its zoning and tree ordinances. “I needed to increase the living space in this house,” Wills said.  “That is the logical thing and pretty much the only option, as I see it.”
Nine days after the NPU’s split vote, the city’s Board of Zoning Adjustment unanimously approved Wills’ project. The lesson: Everything up that point had been only a recommendation. NPU votes aren’t binding; the board has the final word.
Now Wills is in the final stages of drawing up construction plans. She still needs a building permit.
“Because of this act of God,” she said, “I had to do something to fix it.”