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Borough Fence Flap Pits Disabled Homeowner Against Historic Commission



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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 john@thebee.com.

Robin, Jason, and Charly Lynch stand behind a fence the family put up around part of their property at 42 Main Street that was found to be in violation of Borough of Newtown Historic District Commission standards and is subject to a ruling expected on May 27. Robin Lynch, who has a disability that would prevent her from chasing her toddler if the child ran toward Main Street, said the fence was installed after being advised no permit was required by a borough zoning official. —Bee Photo, Voket
Comments are open. Be civil.
  1. sun1318 says:

    This is an ugly fence . Having lived in the Borough for 40 years, I have never seen anything like it. It does not fit in with the character of Main Street The Historic District, and Borough Commissions are 100% correct in addressing this eyesore. On several occasions during the zoom meeting the owner said she was aware they moved into an historic district. Thus, they should have educated themselves about the area. Additionally, the paperwork has ” the second check box reminding them of their obligation to approach the historic commission about work being planned” The owners made a mistake and need to fix it.

    As someone who has been supporting persons with disabilities (mental and physical) since high school (volunteering, hiring and having many friends), long before ADA, I am suspect of her introducing her disability as a determining factor in this issue. It makes no sense that moving the fence back to a less unsightly location adversely impacts her disability. I am also suspect of her statement regarding the “state’s disability rights office about the matter, …. that any further resulting legal action would be “a waste of taxpayers’ money.” No professional would offer any opinion without a thorough investigation Furthermore, I welcome my tax dollars to be used to defend the character and charm of Main Street as well as of the Historic District and Borough.

  2. beesknees says:

    I personally think the fence is beautiful and historically appropriate to the area. This is a split rail fence and perhaps sun1318 doesn’t realize that this is new wood and this will age like the many split rail fences throughout Newtown and the rest of Connecticut. In fact, split rail fences were one of the first fences used by early settlers due to the availability of wood at the time and ease of installation.
    The person who commented above being “suspect of her introducing her disability” because the homeowner installed the fence to protect her child is not reflective of anyone who has been supporting persons with disabilities. The woman clearly explains that she wanted to fence in the doors off the home so she can enjoy her property with her family in a safe manner.
    I think you also may be confusing some of the details in the article…it doesn’t say that the disability rights office said anything about taxpayer money, that was a quote taken from the homeowner. If you actually listened to the meeting minutes from the Historic District Commission you can hear the family explain that they sought out the correct thing to do because they were in a historic district which prompted their calling the borough and were not given any additional instructions. It doesn’t sound like the homeowners did ANYTHING wrong.

  3. newengland68 says:

    While I feel for the new homeowners, I’m afraid a simple google search shows many other cases of Historic Districts banning specifically split rail fences as they are typically not historically appropriate- especially on a New England town Main Street. I am aware that homeowners on Main Street have to abide by strict rules regarding fences and other visual changes, regardless of having babies, toddlers, and dogs to keep fenced in. I think the style of the fence, combined with it’s up-front location makes for a difficult combination. It has altered the appearance of the entire block, which is one of the prettiest sections of Main Street. The fence, in combination with the beautiful brick building nextdoor, is an especially odd match- right there you can see that it is indeed historically inappropriate. I hope a solution can be found that keeps everyone happy. I think everyone’s needs can indeed be respected and met, while also respecting the Historic District that works so hard to keep this street looking the way it does. A compromise is surely best.

    1. beesknees says:

      I did a google search and the first few items that came up were related to 1.) someone installed a split rail in front of a 1920s home 2.) someone removed a split rail and installed a picket fence and the historic district wanted the split rail. In some of the instances there were specific guidelines for fence types to which there are not any in this case. I understand your point about it not “matching” the brick building but why do the houses 100 years apart need to “match.” I am following this story on FaceBook and I listened to the entire hearing, the homeowners did the only thing they could and called the borough when they wanted to install the fence. It wasn’t like they are trying to completely disregard the historic district. What source are you using to say something is historically inappropriate? On FaceBook, there is an early image of Newtown with a wooden split rail or similar style fence right down Main street. As I said in the post above, there is no questioning this a historic style fence. I walked up and down Main street with my son and saw a number of fence types going far closer to the front of the street. But ultimately, I agree with everyone on FB in saying that this should not be an issue. AND I agree that there should be a compromise in this situation given the homeowners disability and error on the towns part.

      1. newengland68 says:

        There is another situation, that arose in Ann Arbor- same style fence- and they ruled it had to be taken down because, while they said it was a lovely fence, it was visually unsettling in combination with the rest of the homes and structures on the street. I think that’s the exact issue here. Sure slit rail fences were common before the turn of the 9th century- but I believe they were more uncommon after that- except in rural settings with large plots of land. I do not think the lovely people on the Historic District Commission would give anyone a difficult time- if not for a reason. I am well aware of the guidelines that need to be met when raising structures, because I am in fact, a Main Street homeowner and had to follow stringent guidelines and acquire a certificate of appropriateness for our own fence as well. I think the next issue here is fairness. Everyone should have to abide by the same guidelines. Now- considering the homeowner has a disability- I am well-aware that the commission has been very sensitive about that( I too was present at the meetings) and said they only wanted to compromise to find a way to aid the homeowner’s disability- but also remember and recognize the historic district guidelines. I think that’s more than fair.

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