Main Street Fence To Stay Standing, Requires Hedges
The Borough of Newtown Historic District Commission continued a public hearing over Zoom on the evening of May 27 with regard to a Certificate of Appropriateness for a fence located at 32 Main Street. Leading up to the discussion were two previous public hearings on April 21 and May 6.
Those in attendance at the night’s meeting, in addition to the commission, included the applicants, 32 Main Street homeowners Robin and Jason Lynch; borough attorney Monte Frank; borough warden Jay Maher; legal advisor to the Borough Historic District, Jim Gaston; and members of the public, many of whom identified themselves as present or former Main Street residents.
Stephanie Gaston, chair of the Borough of Newtown Historic District Commission, began the meeting by presenting a variety of documents for the public record, such as public hearing notices, photographs of the installed fence, and recommendations from landscape architect Phillip Barlow, who had reviewed the fence the previous week.
For the latter, she explained, “He is the landscape architect with expertise of historic properties that was recommended to us from the State of Connecticut Historic Preservation Trust.”
Barlow’s suggestions included painting the sections of the fence that are visible from the street white; putting the metal screening on the street side of the fence and planting vines to eventually cover it; planting an evergreen hedge in front of the fence; replacing the round rails with rectangular rails, leaving the round posts in place; moving the fence back three feet and initiating points one, two, or three; or replacing the fence.
Stephanie then asked the applicants if they would like to add anything to the application.
Robin shared her computer screen for a slideshow presentation and started off by giving background information of her experience.
She said, “I have a disability and needed to install a fence to protect my child from the busy Main Street/Route 25 traffic. I called the borough main number and was directed to [Land Use Agency Deputy Director of Planning] Rob Sibley. I told Mr Sibley that I lived in the Historic District at 32 Main Street and needed to install a fence.
“He asked about the fence style, height, and location of the fence; I answered his questions and he said I could proceed with installing my fence — no issues.
“Mr Gaston came by our house after a large portion was installed and said I should stop work, because we didn’t have a Certificate of Appropriateness. He gave me his card with Ms Gaston’s e-mail written on it. I e-mailed and she gave me a Certificate of Appropriateness application.”
She went on to detail that at the first public hearing, on April 21, she informed the commission that she had a disability and that was a reason for needing the fence.
Robin then shared images of the fence at her home, which the public hearing agenda specified is approximately 450 feet of four-foot-high cedar split rail fencing installed at the side and back of property (not extending past the front of the house).
She then shared an example of how the fence will look as it ages, and two images from the Newtown Historical Society of wood fences in Newtown from more than a century ago.
Robin provided a letter from Ben Cruson, the son of the late Town Historian Dan Cruson, dated May 3, 2021.
It mentions that while he is “not an expert on the regulations of the borough and will not comment in that context,” he is “able to attest to the historical appropriateness of the fence in Newtown’s Historic District.”
When discussing the topic of congruence, Robin provided photographic examples of similar fences she cited as being located in Newtown’s Historic District. These images include fences at 19-21 Main Street (previously Hawley Manor Inn), 64 Main Street, and 72 Main Street.
Additionally, she provided photos of other fences that are visible from Main Street. They included a variety of styles.
“Some of these fences are not that old and are past the Historic District sign. They are giving some impression that there is no congruence in the district,” Robin said.
The slideshow then included a number of state and local laws and rules pertaining to disability, as she cited the fence was put in place due to her disability.
Robin went on to say that she believes they can come to a reasonable accommodation and that her husband made mock-ups of what the fence can look like with rhododendrons in front of it.
“There would be a significant aesthetic appeal to putting this in front, or putting any kind of landscape in front, while also providing the reasonable accommodation that I am requesting,” Robin said. “In closing, I think it is important to recognize the purpose of a fence. A fence is to protect that which is most valuable to a property owner and in this case, [it is] my daughter.”
The public hearing was then opened to comments from residents.
The first to speak on the matter was Main Street resident Daina Smith, who said that while she agreed that the fence at 32 Main Street is not the “right style fence for the street,” she wonders if a solution can be achieved through landscaping.
Borough of Newtown Historic District Commission Vice Chair Betsy Kenyon read a text from Main Street resident Sherry Bermingham, who was unable to make it to the meeting. The statement noted, “I would like to ask the applicant what they saw in the neighborhood that made them buy here. I hope it would be the beauty and coherence of area. We residents have worked very hard to maintain our special neighborhood; please respect that.”
A series of speakers strongly in favor of keeping the 32 Main Street fence followed.
Main Street resident Ross Mannuzza said he finds the fence “more than appropriate” and said he loves that it is “soft in nature and appeal.” He added, “There is more than enough precedent” of the style of fence in the area.
Main Street resident Jennifer Guman agreed with Mannuzza and commented that it is nice to see there are young families moving into Main Street.
“I would hate to see anything that might deter younger families to be moving into the area,” she said.
Main Street resident Julie Schwartz spoke next, saying she finds the fence to be “historically appropriate” and that “with some landscaping, it will look fantastic.”
Main Street resident Jordana Bloom, who is one of the Lynches’ neighbors, said that she believes the charm of Newtown is in the diversity of homes in town.
“The most important thing to me is safety, and that Robin has the safety and security that she needs with a disability to keep her daughter safe from this busy road,” Bloom said. “My husband and I wholeheartedly think the fence looks great and it’s going to age well.”
Newtown resident Cara Reilly noted that she drives by 32 Main Street every day and did not know the fence was a problem until she read about it in The Newtown Bee.
“It does not stand out to me to be any different than any other fence in that area… It seems like it’s an appropriate fence with the style of house,” Reilly said.
She added that if the fence were to be denied to someone using it for a disability and for safety, it would be “a little bit embarrassing as a longtime resident of this town.”
Newtown resident Cathleen Spiro, who formerly lived at 32 Main Street, said, “The reason I moved off of Main Street was because I had a toddler in my house, and we did not feel it was safe without any kind of fencing there, and I wasn’t in the financial position to put in a fence.”
Spiro said the fence complements the barn on the property well, too.
Legal Advisor’s Comments
Last to speak during the public participation portion was Main Street resident Jim Gaston, who said he was neither in favor of nor against the application.
He stated that he wanted to mention some corrections regarding information in The Newtown Bee’s article, “Borough Fence Flap Pits Disabled Homeowner Against Historic Commission,” and from posts he has seen on social media.
“For a point of fact, the fence is a western round rail, not a split rail,” he said.
He gave some history about the Borough of Newtown Historic District in that only one application had ever been rejected by the commission and that was concerning a fence.
For the record, Gaston also recalled his first interaction with the Lynches on April 7 when the fence was partially completed. He recalled that the applicants stated they knew their property was in the historic district. He also told them they needed a Certificate of Appropriateness by law, informed them of the process, and provided contact information.
He noted that the applicants did not mention to him that the fence was being put up because of a disability, but cited the fence was for their dogs.
“I never ordered them to stop, nor did I have that authority at that time,” he mentioned.
Additionally, Gaston touched upon the topic of the fence being discussed publicly on social media and, as a result, there have been “nasty, offensive personal comments” made about some members of the commission.
“As legal advisor, I want to inform the commission members that neither the positive nor negative comments on social media should affect or influence you in any way in either approving or disproving the application,” he said.
He concluded that the fence cost approximately $18,000 for materials and installation, and it could cost approximately $3,000 to $5,000 to remove.
“The Borough Historic District regulations do have a provision, which you can consider economic impact hardship given the circumstances that occurred, and the applicants have a duty to mitigate that. The commission has the discretion in which to work with that… so an economic impact hardship could be a reason for an approval with stipulations,” Gaston said.
Robin then was given the opportunity to respond and clarified that she likely mentioned the dog as a reason for the fence, and not her daughter or disability, because that is not something she talks about to people off the street.
Borough of Newtown Historic District Commissioner Chuck Fulkerson began by saying that he is “so sorry” the discrepancy happened and that he acknowledges it is unfortunate for the Lynches and the town.
“However, my duty, as I see it, is to — as best as I can — stand behind the Historic Commission’s guidelines and rules. I would have to deny the application based on that,” he said.
Commission secretary Mark Poirier felt that the Lynches made a strong argument for the fence.
“I have not heard any sentiment from the public calling for it to be taken down… so I am in favor of a solution by which they mitigate the existing fence with some shrubbery, and we make a reasonable accommodation accordingly,” he said.
Commission member Ellen Whalen agreed with Poirier’s statements to mitigate the fence with shrubbery.
“My suggestion would be to make sure it is evergreen and that it is appropriately placed,” she said.
Stephanie Gaston then read a prepared statement, which detailed the background and sequence of events that led to the Certificate of Appropriateness’s public hearings.
An excerpt states, “The Commission finds that the rural, round farm-style fencing intended to corral farm animals is inappropriate and not historically consistent with both the period properties of 30 and 32 Main Street, as well as the residential and commercial Colonial and Early American period of the Historic District area. The Commission also finds that the westerly (street) portion of the fencing inappropriately breaks up the overall Historic District open lawnscapes and presents an unbalanced historical view of 32 Main Street. Finally, the Commission finds that the fencing historically contrasts sharply with the historical red brick building at 30 Main Street.”
However, a motion was made to approve the Certificate of Appropriateness with the following stipulations:
“A) At minimum, 30-inch-high hedges are to be planted street side completely along the westerly (street) fencing so as to substantially conceal the westerly side fencing from the Main Street view; said cover is consistent with the recommendations of the historic landscaping expert recommended by the State of Connecticut; In addition the applicants may choose from three shrubs recommended by the landscape expert: inkberry, Japanese holly, or dense yew;
“B) Said hedges shall be installed within 30 days of today’s Commission vote;
“C) Said hedges shall be continuously maintained and kept in good health by the applicants and/or owners of 32 Main Street;
“D) The applicants and/or owners of 32 Main Street shall have the right to resubmit proposed changes as to said westerly fence covering should good cause occur, and the Historic District Commission shall retain jurisdiction thereof;
“D) Any failure to comply with the stipulations shall result in a Cease and Desist Order issued upon the applicants and/or owners of 32 Main Street to which there will be 30 days to comply. Failure to comply will result in the nullification of Approval of this Certificate of Appropriateness and subject the applicants and/or owners of 32 Main Street to remove all fencing visible from Main Street.”
Borough attorney Frank voiced that he supported the motion, but that the approval should be granted with two exceptions: economic hardship and federal law (ADA and Fair Housing).
The Borough of Newtown Historic District Commission voted 4-1 in favor, and the motion passed.
Before the meeting concluded, Kenyon said the commission has never faced anything like this before and “both the applicant and the commission have been put into a very uncomfortable position, because of misinformation — no fault of either side. I know that I am compassionate to the applicant as to what their needs are and on our side, too, we were faced with many things that were difficult. We’re trying to do the best we can.”
For more information about upcoming Borough of Newtown Historic District Commission meetings, visit newtown-ct.gov/borough-newtown.
Alissa Silber can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.