Borough Fence Flap Pits Disabled Homeowner Against Historic Commission
A Main Street homeowner with a chronic disability that limits her mobility is engaged in a flap involving the Borough Historic District Commission and the Borough’s zoning coordinator over a fence that was built to help prevent her toddler from running out of their yard and into the busy roadway just south of the flagpole.
Robin Lynch and her husband, Jason, initially approached Zoning Coordinator Rob Sibley earlier this year asking for clearance and the necessary permits to put up 450 feet of triple-tiered wooden split-rail fence — the majority of which surrounds the south and rear expanse of their property at 42 Main Street. A 32-foot run of that fence between the southwestern corner of their home and the front corner of their lot is visible from Main Street.
A Main Street neighbor of the Lynch family, Borough Burgess James Gaston, whose wife, Stephanie, chairs the historic district commission, told fellow burgesses and Borough Warden Jay Maher on May 11 that there was “some miscommunication or misunderstanding,” that caused the issue to fall under the purview of historic district officials.
“It’s an issue with the borough, it’s not an issue with the historic district,” Gaston said, adding that the historic district panel now has “a difficult duty to [make a decision] based on the historical aspect of this fence. But we can’t have people erecting structures which fall within the historic district and require a Certificate of Appropriateness.”
Sibley said upon reviewing the proposed fence plans brought to him by the family, he understood such a structure required certification by the historic district commission. But since there was no permit necessary, he told the burgesses “there is no zoning component associated with it.”
For any work requiring a building permit in the district, Sibley said, the second check box on the paperwork reminds property owners of their obligation to approach the historic commission about work being planned. But since there was no zoning component, there was no requirement for the zoning officer to inform the property owner.
Sibley admitted that the zoning department typically “catches 99% of all these issues,” but in this case it was not in the scope of his responsibility to volunteer a referral to the historic district panel.
Gaston countered that it was simply “good government” and “a courtesy” to offer such supplemental advisories. Sibley responded saying that according to regulations, only the building official could offer such recommendations, but he was more than willing to initiate such a practice if and when the zoning official’s involvement is amended into the regulations.
Sibley further defended his position, saying he has encountered issues in previous instances where he offered residents guidance beyond what he was authorized to do.
“At the end of the day, I don’t want to start making determinations for other agencies,” he said, adding that he uses a common advisory language advising property owners to consult with all appropriate agencies if and when he is part of the official chain of officials dispensing a ruling or permit.
The Homeowners’ Side
It was not until some time after the fence was completed, Robin Lynch said, that the Gastons came knocking on their door notifying them of the potential historic district violation. She told The Newtown Bee that the initial visit was so upsetting that she suffered anxiety and had difficulty sleeping in the ensuing days over the pending commission hearing, and fearing the consequences to her child of having to remove the front expanse of fencing.
According to historic district commission minutes, the Lynches ended up applying for the certificate of appropriateness on April 7, and a hearing was set for April 17. That hearing was continued twice, Robin Lynch said, with the final decision scheduled to be rendered at the upcoming hearing, May 27.
During the initial historic district commission meeting, she told the commission the family felt the split-rail design was historically appropriate to a neighborhood that was initially developed for small-lot farming. She also noted that she is asking for a reasonable accommodation of her disability that would allow her full use of her property.
Neighbor and Newtown Legislative Council member Jordana Bloom appeared at that meeting saying she had “no concerns about or objections to the fence,” and encouraged the commission to be careful about sending an unwelcoming message to young families interested in buying homes within the district. Commission Chair Stephanie Gaston noted that after a review of respected historic district design guidelines, this style fence is discouraged except in rural settings and best for rear portions of property.
The panel reportedly then offered Lynch two alternatives or compromises that might resolve the situation, involving pushing the fence further back onto the property or some mitigation of the fence’s appearance.
Lynch expressed a desire to correct the situation if it can be done in a way that meets the needs of her disability. She opposed the suggestion to move the fence rearward, noting that the house has two side egresses that she considers would be less child-safe without the fence, and moving the fence rearward would also break up a rose garden planted by prior owners.
In addition, she said there is a large sugar maple that would have root damage if the fence was moved.
In speaking with The Newtown Bee, Robin Lynch confirmed she has a chronic disease that caused the disability compromising her mobility, and her ability to chase after her toddler, Charly, if the child were to venture toward Main Street. She said numerous visitors have reached out and even knocked on her door offering support after hearing about the issue.
A Forever Home
“We still feel it was the best decision to move to Newtown, and we chose this historic residence to provide a forever home for our family to grow,” she said, adding that she and her husband consulted the state’s disability rights office about the matter, that she has federally protected rights, and that any further resulting legal action would be “a waste of taxpayers’ money.”
She said after the initial visit by the Gastons, she felt like their attitude reflected “a personal attack, because it was about my home.”
“I know Newtown fiercely protects its children, and I felt putting up this fence to protect ours was the right thing to do,” Lynch said.
“This does not only reflect a breakdown in communication because of the omission on the zoning official’s part, which I do not hold against him, but it’s also an issue of compassion,” she said. “I think from the start this could have all been a little more humane. If I was able to keep up with my daughter, we may not have even needed the fence.”
To help offer some perspective on how the fence issue might be addressed without removing or modifying the front section possibly putting the child at risk, Borough Warden Jay Maher said he made an executive decision to retain the services of a historic landscape architect who would be retained for between $2,000 and $3,000. That individual, Philip Barlow of TO Designs in New Britain, is expected to present a number of options regarding the fence situation at a continued public hearing of the Borough Historic Commission scheduled for May 27.
Gaston said the homeowners should have known they were in a historic district when they closed, as that detail typically surfaces in a buyer’s title search.
Borough Senior Burgess Chris Gardner said from this point on he would like to see some sort of means by which those acquiring properties in the small and separate municipality’s historic district in the heart of Newtown could be notified of their responsibility to request appropriate certifications from the historic district commission.
Associate Editor John Voket can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.