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Longmeadow is Wonderland?

Date: 11/30/2009

I love Longmeadow, the tree-lined streets, the old New England homes, the friendly smiles, the great school system and the genuine feeling of community; there is so much for which to be grateful. After seven years as a happy resident, I thought I knew a good deal about my town. However, recently I've discovered a virtually unknown gem. That's right, my fellow resident with a "pure and unclouded brow," there is an unrivaled, unparalleled attraction in Longmeadow that is probably yet to you unknown. Never mind the reversing falls in New Brunswick, the Mystery Spot of Santa Cruz or the famed two-headed alligator in Florida, we here in Longmeadow have the miraculous Building Commissioner's Office.

Yes, I kid you not. What deity looked upon us and decided to grant such an unusual, inspiring entity I do not know, but I am sure our level of gratitude has yet to meet the gift. If you have never been, or have not had cause to, you are truly denying yourself the splendor, the magnificence and wonder of such an oddity. Everything you have ever learned, known to be true by the laws of nature, held dear to your heart, shall be challenged, immediately turned on its head, as you break the plane of its threshold. Yes, my fellow resident with a "pure and unclouded brow," when you climb up those creaky steps, and gingerly enter through the designated door, papers in hand, you will be "through the looking glass."

Oh, and as you enter and feel yourself floating off the floor, your weight repelled as the laws of physics (and reason) are temporarily suspended, you will instantly feel the rush of gratitude, and yes, even remorse for your previous shortcomings, having ignored this little alcove. Here you will find things you never knew about your self, your liberty and your property, three almost arcane notions proposed by crusty old men in wigs a couple of hundred years ago that clearly have no relevance once you've gone through this stargate and wallow in the splendor of modern bureaucracy.

For instance, I'm sure only a select few of you aware that the majority of homes in Longmeadow are considered "non-conforming entities." "What?" you say? Yes, yes, it's true. It's true. I know this because the Red Queen (Town Manager) told me it's true.

Believe it or not, 60 percent of your homes have the unparalleled honor to be considered a non-conforming entity and you thought such an esteemed designation was reserved for your children alone. Hah, I can almost see the enlightenment coming over your faces as I speak. How could this be? As one who has been shown the error of his ways allow me to explain.

Upon crossing the threshold of the Building Commissioner's Office you will first be asked your address. Then, like magic, a card is produced with your property's designation. Like at the reading of a worn-out Monopoly Chance card you swallow with anticipation. "Oh, what do we have here? Your lot size is undersized and therefore your home itself sits on a non-conformity."

"Really? What does that mean?"

"It means that any modifications to a non-conforming entity must be automatically denied and you have to apply for a special permit and go before the zoning board."

"Oh, okay."

Now I know some of you know-it-alls are out there thumbing through your copy of the Town of Longmeadow By-Laws and are pointing to Article VI, Section A, subsection 5: "A lot or parcel of land having an area or a frontage of lesser amounts than required by the foregoing paragraphs may be considered as coming within the area and frontage requirements of this section provided such lot or parcel of land was shown on a plan or described in a deed duly recorded or registered at the time of the adoption of this by-law and did not at the time of such adoption adjoin other land of the same owner available for use in connection with such lot or parcel." referring to sub-section 1 which is their basis for a non-conforming designation. And, I know that this applies to all of you whose homes were built prior to 1963 but again this so-called logic only applies outside the Building Commissioner's Office. When crossing that threshold you clearly see that things are not always what they seem to appear, like the words "shall be."

In the midst of my delusion I was fool-hardy enough to point out subsection 5 and I was quickly spanked with the other "non-conforming quality" of my property that being an inadequate side yard. When the silly people outside of this office review Article VI Section B with regard to all the restrictions they will see the words "no structure SHALL BE erected, constructed or placed" but here in the Building Commissioner's Office that becomes "no structure shall have been erected, constructed or placed."

The beauty of this magic takes your perfectly legal, contracted entity prior to the by-laws adoption and retroactively turns it into a "pre-existing non conforming structure/use" a term that was supposed to apply to those structures/uses that were non-conforming prior to the adoption of the By-Laws and carried a special permit or liability into the time following the adoption of the By-Laws.

But we are an inclusive society and who would want to deny 60 percent of the households the privilege of having to carry a special permit. Why? Because the Mad Hatter (Land Use Counsel) told the Red Queen it is so. Thank God we have the Building Commissioner's office to confirm once again just how special we are.

However, I must admit with some remorse my initial reluctance to abide by the sheer translucence on Williams Street and being formerly the stubborn sort decided to question these decisions to the Red Queen. After all, I certainly wouldn't want any special designations afforded me that were not simply earned.

"Well," said the Red Queen, "we are obligated to follow Massachusetts Statute 40a, oh and by the way Mr. Batchelor if you are so interested in zoning law there is a class for citizens being offered at UMass." Oh, the societal gifts, they just keep coming.

Had Mrs. Batchelor so many years prior been afforded a light into the future to see that one of her children might ever esteem himself to the level of attending a "class for citizens" on zoning law she might have let up a little on one of her two jobs. However, being distracted by my ignorance of Statute 40a, I decided to forego the class and investigate the law.

When I found Statute 40a Section 6, I read the first paragraph:

"Except as hereinafter provided, a zoning ordinance or by-law shall not apply to structures or uses lawfully in existence or lawfully begun, or to a building or special permit issued before the first publication of notice of the public hearing on such ordinance or by-law required by section five, but shall apply to any change or substantial extension of such use, to a building or special permit issued after the first notice of said public hearing."

Oh my, I thought, this is one of those fuzzy paragraphs that can only be cleared by entrance into the Building Commissioner's Office. I thought I might never learn my lesson. Would I ever enclose my screened porch, the one with existing roof and foundation, the one I was not extending or embellishing other than walls and doors? Maybe it's just best to pay the $550 to the company who does the lot survey, then the $150 for the special permit/appeal process, then the additional $55 for the actual permit.

None of this seems to make sense in the world of reason and physics but I know that once I cross that threshold it would all make sense. It was then, after I paid $550 for the lot survey and brought my application for my special permit with my $150, that I started to feel better. I was through the looking glass and now I looked forward to my zoning board appeal hearing "tea party."

There's been a lot in the news lately about "tea parties" but let me tell you as one who has been through the zoning appeal/special permit process that besides voting in an election that gets decided by the Supreme Court there can be fewer civil joys for the involved citizen other than to grovel before the frothing bureaucrat. You don't need to attend a tea party. You can have your own private Idaho right here on Williams Street. It's so close to home and all you need to bring is your relevant paperwork, photos of your intended project, a signed affidavit or two, and any remaining shreds of dignity that may lay negligently uncollected by the endless levels of government we so richly deserve.

Michael Batchelor