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Homeowners fence poses more barriers than expected

By Natasha Clark

Assistant Managing Editor

EAST LONGMEADOW Who is ultimately responsible? That is the question hovering at the edge of Joseph and Dorothy Sassi's property line now that there is no barrier along their Pinewoods Drive and Meadowbrook Road corner lot.

Dorothy wants their story to be a cautionary tale to others.

"We made an innocent mistake," she said. One that will cost them well over $3,500.

Long time residents of Springfield, the Sassis and their five-year-old daughter moved to East Longmeadow three years ago primarily for its school system. At one time a natural barrier of trees bordered the property, over time the trees blighted and the Sassis had a company remove the dying trees last winter.

"We sit across from a business, Meadowbrook Farms, and particularly in the spring and fall, there is a noise factor. At night you can hear refrigerator trucks. Those trees used to block that. So when we lost [the trees] we decided to put up a fence," Dorothy said.

They received estimates from three fencing companies, two were either based in or owned by East Longmeadow residents.

"All said [there was] no problem putting up a fence. We asked what the rules were because we live at an intersection. We were told by the two East Longmeadow companies, they are professionals we assume they know their business, [that] when we put up the six foot tall solid fence that you taper down the front to four foot height. So we did that," she said.

It just so happened that the $3,500 PVC fence she had installed by Amherst Fence was in violation of zoning requirements.

"[Rick Maurer, the owner of Amherst Fence] was wonderful. I do not want to trash his company in any way. I think it was an innocent mistake. The city mailed me a letter saying that we were in violation of setback laws," Dorothy said.

Former Planning Board member Marilyn Richards, who is familiar with zoning requirements thanks to her 11-year tenure on the board, spotted the violation.

"There was a new fence installed, so it appeared that it did not meet the standards of the bylaw. When a house is located on a corner lot the frontage setback is the same on each street," Richards explained. "Its frontage is on Pinewoods [Drive] as well as Meadowbrook [Road]. The fence is considered a structure. There is a 50-foot setback. What brought my attention to this particular issue is that I drive by it every day. They removed a buffer of trees and bushes and cleared the way and then installed the fence. There was activity prior to the fence being installed that brought attention."

A fence that is more than four feet high or more than one quarter solid has to be erected not less than three feet from the property line and this pertains to side or rear yard fences. Anything in the front of the house, in this case in the front of the house because of the corner lot, has to honor the setback of the primary building. In this particular zone it is 50 feet, because the corner lot has frontage on each street.

On May 14, Richards sent a letter to Building Inspector Daniel E. Hellyer and to Robyn Macdonald, planning, Zoning Board and conservation director, asking them if they were aware of the fence.

"A fence has to be three feet from the property line. The property line is three feet from the road. If every property on Meadowbrook put solid fences on their property lines you would have a streetscape of a solid wall," Richards said.

Hellyer said they tried everything they possibly could to find a solution to the problem, but the fence was in violation of zoning requirements and a building permit should have been taken out in the first place.

"We made an innocent mistake. We assumed that the fence people knew what they were doing," Dorothy said.

But Maurer of Amherst Fence told Reminder Publications, "The way I work is the homeowner gets the permits. I don't go get permits, the homeowner goes and gets permits. I don't know which towns do or which towns don't [require them] ... we both made a mistake. I should have made sure they had a permit and they should have made sure they got one."

Maurer and Dorothy both agree that other homes in East Longmeadow do have the same fences as well, but Richards said that doesn't make it right.

"I'm a strong advocate for the standards of the town. It's frustrating when you see standards not consistently applied. There are other fences, they do exist. Our town has responded more in a reactive stance rather than a proactive stance," Richards said. "Things are not addressed unless a complaint comes in. My complaint was more an informational, 'Have you seen this?' 'Take a look at it and tell me what you think.'"

The Zoning Board of Appeals hosted a public hearing this summer on the fence and upheld Hellyer's findings that the violation be corrected. The Sassis could have sought a variance, but last weekend Maurer took down their fence instead.

"I'm going to work something out with them. I don't know exactly what that is," Maurer said. "I feel bad for the people and I am going to try to take care of them. This was all done unintentionally."

"We're going to have to plant shrubbery through there. It is quite a hardship for us," Dorothy added. "We asked for total restitution [from Amherst Fence]. Ultimately, it was his fault. We had spoken to attorneys and other contractors [and] ultimately, the responsibility is his, and we did feel that we should have restitution made. He doesn't agree, but he did agree to give us some of the money back."