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Jo Summar said that if she was writing this story, the title would be "What's Wrong With This Picture?" Standing in front of her 120-odd-year-old home on Arch Street, you can see her point. Summar bought her house in 2002, and spent three years bringing it back. Inside and out — other than an unfinished privacy fence that was finally approved by the Capitol Zoning District Commission in late October after a months-long process — the house looks like something out of Architectural Digest.
It's hard to disagree that the CZDC has bigger dish to fry than Summar's fence project. Next door to her house is a Victorian home that has peeled in places to gray wood. Just down the street, the home owned by the man who chairs the CZDC's design review committee has crumbling eaves and a shipwreck of old wooden scaffolding along one side.
The CZDC says they're just trying to keep the historic fabric of the neighborhood intact. Summar, however, says the hassles involved in getting her fence approved are symptomatic of the CZDC's obsession with permits and red tape, which is allowing previously-restored houses to crumble while keeping new, preservation-minded residents out.
The CZDC was established in 1975 by the state legislature, and was aimed at turning around neglect of historic homes near the Arkansas Governor's Mansion and the Arkansas State Capitol. The Capitol Zone is a large triangle, bordered by the railroad tracks behind Union Station in the north, Cross Street in the East and I-630 in the south. The Mansion Zone is bordered by Roosevelt Road in the south, 13th Street in the North, State Street in the west, and Cumberland Street in the east. The nine-member commission and its advisory committees oversee all design, zoning, new construction and renovation projects in the area. Residents in the area must obtain a permit before they can petition for a building permit from the city. Projects that fall within current rules can be approved at a staff level. Any project that falls outside those rules must be granted a variance by the commission.
Summar, a retired Army/VA nurse, knew her overgrown wire fence in the back yard had needed replacing for awhile, but she sped up the project when her golden retriever started escaping in the spring. In mid-May, Summar called the commission, inquiring about the permits needed to build a six-foot privacy fence with two feet of lattice at the top. At the time, she was told that because the proposed fence exceeded the six-foot maximum height allowance, they couldn't recommend the project for approval, and she would need a variance from the commission. That would take awhile. She was told that she wouldn't be able to get a hearing for about six weeks. Then, in June, her dog escaped again and was almost carted off to the pound. Soon after, Summar's son began building the fence she'd wanted, with Summar believing she could get approval for it after the fact.
"Feeling a sense of urgency to protect my two dogs, and knowing that there had been fences approved after the fact just like the one I wanted, he proceeded," she said. "The Capitol Zoning staff had previously recommended approval for two people [with similar fences] before me. One of those previous two was after the fact."
By September, the fence was mostly finished, and her son began replacing the original six-foot privacy fence on the street side of the yard. On Sept. 21, Summar received a letter from the CZDC informing her that the lattice on top of the fence constituted a violation. In response, Summar got the permitting process started. Soon after, she was told that she had to give letters of notice to every neighbor within 200 feet. Later, she was told she needed to submit a survey of the property, even though she said there was already one in her file from previous application. Finally, she was told that she would have to present her project to the design review committee. The soonest they could see her was November. If her project was approved at that level, the soonest the full commission could see her was December. That's when she called the Arkansas Times.
"Up until that point, I'm completing the paperwork," Summar said. "I'm going through the process. I know there have been fences built and approved like this."
Soon after the Times started making inquiries, Summar was told that she could appear before Mansion Review committee almost immediately and the full commission soon after. Her permit was approved by the commission just before Halloween.
While she's free to finish her fence project, Summar is still upset with what she sees as the uneven enforcement and red tape of zoning laws in her neighborhood. "This is not about the fence to me. It's about the inconsistency," she said. "If the laws in this country are interpreted based on precedent, it seems reasonable that ordinances should be too."
To prove her point, she walked the reporter down two blocks from her house to the historic home owned by the design review committee chairman. The brick facade is cracked, and the eaves are so rotten in places that they've fallen out.
Lisa Stice lives across the street from Jo Summar. Concerned about high utility bills in her historic home, Stice inquired about getting more energy-efficient vinyl windows, only to be told that any replacements would have to be all wood, which meant they would have to be custom made. When she got a quote from a manufacturer, she got sticker shock. "I could have bought a car," she said. Stice said that if she had known about the zoning restrictions in the area, she might have looked elsewhere. "I think if we would have known what we had to do to do anything to our house, we wouldn't have purchased here," she said.
Boyd Maher is the executive director of the Capitol Zoning District Commission. He said that the commission reviews things down to the level of fences and steps because it keeps the historic character of the homes intact. "If all we looked at were new construction and teardowns, the historic fabric gets nickeled and dimed over time," Maher said. "The way our standards and rules are written now, they say [any fence] higher than six feet may detract from the historic surroundings."
Asked about some of the deteriorating houses in the neighborhood, Maher said those are cases of "Demolition by Neglect," and adds that the CZDC hasn't had a procedure in place for dealing with neglected properties in a long time. "It's something that we're going to work on in the coming months," he said, "and it's a priority for me as the new director to see that we get a demolition by neglect procedure in place." He called those cases "apples and oranges" with Summar's fence issue, given that they're a case of something a property owner didn't do, while Summar was trying to actively change her home.
Maher said he doesn't know why Summar was so upset with the permitting process, saying that it's just a standard procedure that anyone looking to build outside rules and regulations must go through. He said that all the other above-six-foot fences in the historic district went through the same hearing process before approval.
"We don't expect fences to be dainty little Victorian wrought iron, but we just want to make sure they're not going to detract from the historic surroundings," Maher said. "Anybody who wants something taller than six feet has to come make their case before the commission, and that's all we asked of her."
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