At first blush, this sounded like a classic case of “you can’t fight city hall” but, after council asked questions, it sounded more like something fell down in the process of getting parts of long-time Gulfportian Pat Dunham’s house rebuilt.
In 2020, Pat Dunham’s house had a fire. When she applied for a variance to rebuild an outbuilding, the city’s Board of Adjustment told her no.
Whoever built the outbuilding as a garage didn’t apply for a permit to build it, so when it burned down, Dunham had to get it permitted. According to city staff, the city code disallowed rebuilding exactly as it stood before the fire, so Dunham applied for a variance.
Although Dunham submitted a signed and notarized application including a drawing upon which the BOA based its ultimate denial, Dunham said she didn’t see the submitted drawing until two days after the BOA denied the variance.
“I couldn’t draw a picture out of thin air, so I gave them a picture and said, ‘this is something like what I want to do,’” she told Gulfport City Council on January 5. Mike Taylor, Gulfport’s planner, tried to create a drawing from the photo. He placed it on a site plan for her house.
Because the drawing violated code, and because Dunham had the option of rebuilding within code, the BOA denied the variance to rebuild the garage.
Dunham appealed to council, who heard her request at the first meeting of the new year. She argued the city’s drawing showed the building in the wrong place, and that she didn’t see the drawing the community development department submitted to the BOA before the hearing.
“I am here tonight to beg you to go before the variance committee again,” she said at the January 5 meeting. “That’s all I’m asking for; I don’t think it was presented properly.”
“What was it that you signed and got notarized for the variance?” Ward 1 Councilwoman April Thanos asked her. Dunham said “it was probably” a document asking to allow her to “rebuild what was there.”
“That falls within the realm of what you’re responsible for getting together,” Henderson told her. “You never provided a drawing of any kind before that happened?”
“Nope,” she said.
“I’m sorry it’s been a hardship,” he said, “but it feels like it was undertaken without all the ducks being in a row. There is some accountability to make sure this stuff is right before you get to that hearing.”
Council couldn’t vote based on whether they thought the city should issue a variance. Rather, staff told council, they had to vote as to whether the members of the BOA “did their job based on the evidence provided.”
“You don’t have to agree with their findings or disagree with their findings,” City Attorney Andy Salzman said. He also added that the BOA didn’t allow Dunham to rebuild to former specifications due to hardship because “if you can build something without a variance, then you don’t have a hardship.”
“The point of this board is to vote on whether the BOA did their job,” Gulfport Mayor Sam Henderson said. “I know this is not what you want to hear, Ms. Dunham, and I know losing your house in a fire is a hardship [but] it’s going to be very hard to overturn something when nothing was done incorrectly. We don’t have the ability to overturn the board [if they acted appropriately].”
Council voted 4-1 that the BOA did base its decision on presented evidence. Thanos attempted to abstain, but could not because she had no basis to abstain, so instead she cast the lone dissenting vote.
“Ms. Dunham, I’m sorry it went the way that it did, but at least you can get started [rebuilding],” Mayor Henderson said. She can rebuild her main house and, if she desires, a garage or carport that conforms to city code. However, if she wants to build the garage exactly as it stood before the fire, she will need to wait one year to re-apply for a variance, as well as pay the application fee again.
The Gabber is looking into why Dunham’s variance was denied and will report on it at a later date.