by Wesley Ratko
What do you do when a $15,000 fence installation is found to be in violation of city zoning code?
That was the question Laura Stanton, the owner of a home at 401 E. Willow Grove Ave., brought to the April meeting of the Development Review Committee on Tuesday night. Stanton is asking the DRC to support her efforts to keep the fence.
Accompanied by Chestnut Hill architect Jeff Krieger, Stanton told the committee that she received a zoning violation at the end of 2013, which threatened her with a fine of between $400 and $2,000 per day if she didn’t respond to the violation or take down the fence. Based solely on this citation, she went before the LUPZ last January without the necessary paperwork.
With the formal refusal from L&I now in hand, Stanton returned to the DRC to present her case to ask for a variance.
According to city zoning code, a fence on her property cannot be taller than 4 feet and cannot be solid.
Stanton bought the property in 1986. At that time, a solid, stockade fence 6 feet tall surrounded her property. A neighbor told her the fence goes back to 1968. Since ’86, the fence has been replaced four times, all without a word of complaint from the city. Just three days after the most recent replacement was completed – a $15,000 job – she received a notice of violation from the city.
“I would like to keep the fence…it’s $15,000 worth of fence.”
When asked why the fence company didn’t acquire the permit prior to construction, she said the company’s agreement included some fine print that shifts responsibility for all permitting on to property owners. She admits she was unaware of this when she had the fence built and that the fence company never asked for proof of permit prior to beginning work.
Stanton argued that while her fence has never been legal under city zoning code, a fence of equal dimension has been present on her property since 1968. Its height and solidity are justified, she said, given the heavy auto traffic on Willow Grove Avenue, the presence of a SEPTA bus stop, and the busy parking lot of an apartment complex just across the street. She added that she has a dog – a Rhodesian Ridgeback – which is large enough to require a six foot high fence to keep it from jumping out of her yard.
She has received letters of support from her neighbors in favor of keeping the fence.
DRC co-chair John Landis said that while he agreed that Willow Grove Avenue is noisy, the issue of allowing her to keep the fence is a slippery slope.
Landis said that a variance from the zoning code requires an applicant to demonstrate either “economic hardship” or justify exception in terms of policy. He added that, like the zoning code, the role of the committee is to balance serving individual intent with the greater public interest.
He recommended the solution first put forth by the LUPZ – which would allow the fence along Willow Grove Avenue to remain, but require a reduction in height and removal of every other slat – for the fence along Crittenden.
Landis acknowledged that this solution would not be enough to contain her dog.
Committee member Debra Ferraro, who represents the CHCA’s Traffic, Transportation, and Parking committee, asked whether the fence obstructed the view of drivers making turns at the corner.
Stanton said the corner portion of the fence is angled and set back from the road. She also noted that there has never been an accident on the corner as long as she’s lived there.
Committee co-chair Larry McEwen was reluctant to deviate from the regulations. He said that the zoning code wasn’t just something that applies to Chestnut Hill but to the entire city.
“We need to have a whole community of participating residents,” McEwen said.
McEwen acknowledged that there are many fence installations throughout Chestnut Hill that don’t conform with the zoning. He suggested a push for greater publicity, so that residents understand what is and is not allowed, though the committee didn’t take up a discussion on the matter.
Landis suggested she consider a new color scheme in order to minimize the visual impact of the fence. Stanton said her plan was to have the fence stained, but put those plans on hold pending a determination about whether she will be permitted to keep it.
Krieger said that the fact that the fence was preexisting, combined with its location on a corner property and the presence of so much activity along Willow Grove Avenue, were elements that, he felt, supported Stanton’s case for keeping the fence.
The committee asked Stanton to return to LUPZ on May 1st and make her presentation again, now that she has an official refusal from the city. They took no formal action.
Weavers Way Cold Storage
The Weavers Way Co-op appeared before DRC Tuesday night to present its plans to replace a tent along the side of the building with a new cold-storage unit that would increase the store’s ability to keep refrigerated goods.
Attorney Ralph Pinkus represented the Co-op and appeared with general manager Glenn Bergman and finance manager Susan Beetle.
Pinkus said an application to the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections was filed to allow for the construction of a cooler with a total footprint of 159 square feet footprint – with a gloss white aluminum siding. The unit will replace a refrigeration truck now parked at the rear of the store and a tent used as a temporary location to break down pallet freight as it comes off delivery trucks. Because refrigerator space is limited, pallet shipments must be broken down and stored in the truck at the back. The new shed will accommodate whole pallets via a sliding door. The unit does not have its own compressor – it will connect to an existing unit or “rack” above the store now. As a result, no additional noise is anticipated.
In addition, the application to L&I will also seek permission to place a storage shed for dry goods at the rear of the store, and settle an issue regarding the legality of second floor office space.
When the space was initially rented to the Co-op, L&I didn’t acknowledge the existence of the office space, which is not compliant with the existing zoning. On this third option, Pinkus said it’s just a matter of correcting an oversight.
“We’re here trying to be good citizens,” said attorney Pinkus.
No changes are proposed to either the interior of the store or the building footprint.
Notice of the upgrade was mailed to 53 adjacent property owners and a petition of support was circulated and signed by 17 people.
Placement of the freezer and shed will replace two dumpsters, which will be relocated to another location on the property.
Deliveries are made six days a week. Trash and recycling pickup is also six days a week.
Patricia Cove remarked that both the sight and odor of the dumpsters was offensive and asked that the Co-op consider their new placement carefully.
McEwen said the project presented the opportunity to improve the look of the rear entrance. Beetle said that there was strong interest in preserving the picnic are in the rear of the store.
Deb Ferraro asked about the traffic issue of loading and unloading in the shared driveway. Beetle said that produce deliveries come five days a week and take about 15 minutes to unload. The change presented here would not affect the amount of time it takes to unload shipments.
There’s no room for any landscaping around either of the new structures given that they are only four feet from the driveway.
Cove asked that the Co-op appear before the Historic District Advisory Committee and they agreed to do so.
Under new rules that went into effect on March 1, this meeting satisfies the city’s requirement that projects requiring civic design review meet with an RCO.
Frank Hendrie, a representative of the 9th Republican Ward, attended Tuesday night’s meeting. The 9th Republican Ward is one of four Registered Community Organizations that represent Chestnut Hill. DRC co-chair Larry McEwen noted that it was the first time a representative from another Chestnut Hill RCO had attended a CHCA committee meeting. He was welcomed to the committee table to hear from both presenters and invited back to future meetings.