BY ERIC HAVEN
Special to the Clarkston News
Margaret DaCosta moved here in 1978 and was “enamored” with Clarkston from the beginning.
Imagine coming to our little village from New York City. The contrast was a delightful surprise.
DaCosta told her New York friends, “Clarkston is so quaint it will make you cry.”
She loved the tractors in holiday parades (Henry Ford was here), the slower pace, friendliness of the people, especially those she met while walking through the Village.
Shortly after adopting Clarkston as her home, DaCosta was asked by then city councilman, Richard Weiss, if she would consider serving on the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA). This was a totally new idea to Margaret, and it amazed her Weiss would consider her for this position. She didn’t even know what a ZBA was.
DaCosta was impressed with City Manager Art Pappas’ dedication and commitment to our little town. Pappas inspired her to concentrate her efforts on maintaining the unique character of our village, which some take for granted.
“What we have today requires our vigilance, to preserve it for our kids and grandkids,” she said. “Our existence is fragile. There will always be applicants whose request would break our zoning and change Clarkston’s character.
“The ZBA plays a unique and helpful role in our city, to hear cases where difficulty or hardship, unique to a particular property, justify a variance from the strict application of the ordinance,” added Weiss. “It’s a wonderful service that finds solutions for people.”
When I asked DaCosta why she remained on the ZBA for 39 years from 1982-2021, she said, “Since we love where we live, we need to serve our community. Clarkstonians are the benefactors of a strong zoning ordinance.”
I asked DaCosta if she could think of an exemplary case during her long tenure. One that came to her mind was of a family in the R2 residential district who needed a garage behind their house, on their “postage stamp” property of 5,000 square feet. There was no room for a garage. Only 25 percent lot coverage was allowed under the ordinance.
“The ZBA went to work to help the family solve their problem,” said DaCosta.
The family had a shed on their property and a deck off the back of the house. The ZBA asked if they could live without those two structures. They said they could and really preferred to have a garage. With their removal, room was left for a very tiny one-stall garage to their delight. A variance was issued for up to 31 percent lot coverage.
“This is the kind of accommodation the ZBA tries to find for people,” DaCosta said proudly. “But it is not always possible. Sometimes an individual’s variance request threatens neighborhood density or historic continuity. To issue variances in these cases can hurt others. Also, to vary too far from our ordinances, i.e., making too many exceptions, undermines their authority and jeopardizes their defensibility in court. But in every request that is denied, this lay board of fellow residents share the disappointment of the applicant.
“The ZBA is a panel, a board, not an individual. Every member votes their conscience considering the relevant ordinances.and hardships.”
The ZBA has five members, chaired by Scott Meyland, that includes Bill Basinger, Gary Casey, and Sharron Catallo. Nominated to take DaCosta’s fifth seat is Jennifer Cotter.
The ZBA only meets when a variance is requested or zoning decision appealed, usually 2-8 times per year.
All meetings are open to the public, as they should be, for anyone to view the process.