Councilman Grif Chalfant was told by the city’s code enforcement department two homes he is renovating as a general contractor in the Forest Hills neighborhood off Marietta Parkway are not up to code. One home was too tall and too close to the neighboring house, and another home had a carport that was not included in the plans.
The city’s code enforcement department told Chalfant he could request a variance from the city’s Board of Zoning Appeals to remedy the situation, he said.
When he requested it, the board granted the variance, which means Chalfant is allowed to keep the homes as they are, despite what the code stipulates.
Residents of Forest Hills, a 60-home neighborhood, say Chalfant’s influence as a member of the City Council allows him to ask for favors others working in construction wouldn’t be granted.
Chalfant said the violations of code were simply a mistake.
“It is absolutely the truth that no special favors were asked for because I’m a councilman. I don’t need the job that bad,” Chalfant said.
Laura Caro, president of the Forest Hills Neighborhood Association, said she thinks the Board of Zoning Appeals ignored facts when making the decision to grant the variance and let personal relationships with Chalfant get in the way.
“It’s really hard to rationalize the decision that was made by the zoning board. It seems like it was a favor,” Caro said.
Diane Carter, a co-president of the Forest Hills Neighborhood Association, said the modern look of the new homes doesn’t fit in with the rest of the neighborhood.
“We’re furious with the decision the city made. There’s been no attempt to explain the decision,” Carter said.
One variance Chalfant was granted allowed the home on Hunt Street to stand higher than the code allows. Chalfant’s building is 41.5 feet high, which is 6.5 feet higher than it is allowed to be. The limit is 35 feet.
The variance also allowed for the house to be closer to the neighboring house than is normally allowed. Chalfant said the houses are supposed to be five feet apart, but his house is within two feet of the neighboring property line.
A second variance allowed the home on North Forest Street to have an attached carport that he did not specify he was going to add in one portion of the plans.
Doug Haynie, the city attorney, said exceptions are frequently made so buildings can be built outside city code requirements.
“That is (the board’s) job,” Haynie said. “They meet monthly. Every month they approve or disapprove a request for a variance that is based on an innocent mistake or any kind of mistake. They address those every single month.”
Haynie said Chalfant’s actions were within the law, and no one should be able to file a successful ethics complaint against the councilman.
“Any elected official with the city of Marietta is given all of the rights and privileges of a private citizen. If they are exercising their rights as a public citizen, it’s not in violation of the ethics code,” Haynie said.
When James Mills, the vice chair of the Board of Zoning Appeals, was considering the variance at the July 28 meeting, he focused on why the building had been built in violation of the code.
Mills wanted to know at the meeting, “How did this get by the city?”
The Board of Zoning Appeals discovered the plans for the home submitted to the city had been approved by the city’s planning and zoning department as well as the Planning Commission despite violations of city code inherent in portions of the plans.
“It was approved in error,” said Rusty Roth, the city’s planning and zoning manager.
Mills, who ran the meeting because the chairman, James Lowman, was absent, would not comment on the variances after the meeting.
Chalfant said the mistake that led to building the homes out of code was a combination of errors by everyone involved.
Chalfant said the building company, California-based Paragon Investors, and an architect company, Marietta-based Olah Design Group, worked on the plans. He was hired by Paragon Investors and was responsible for turning in the plans to the city.
When Chalfant submitted the plans, the city’s planning and zoning department approved them even though they did not meet code, Roth said. When the plans were approved a year ago, the city gave Chalfant the go ahead to start building.
“I received my (building) permits, and I started to build,” Chalfant said.
Chalfant admitted the plans were not up to code, but he said no one in particular was to blame for it.
“It’s a combination of maybe I should have caught it. The architect should have caught it. The city planning and zoning should have caught it. We all should have caught it. We’re all at fault here,” Chalfant said.
Chalfant said he has spent about $200,000 on each home in the past year while renovating them.
Carter, the HOA co-president, said Chalfant, who has been in the construction business for 40 years, should have known better than to build a home that wasn’t within city regulations.
“(Builders) have to have a license and an education to be able to build in the state of Georgia. So, I would say he has to know what he’s doing,” Carter said.
Chalfant said he can’t be expected to know every rule about building in every city.
“I build in many different municipalities and each one of them does it a little differently, and I just didn’t catch it and neither did the staff,” Chalfant said.