Town threatens fines over gravel turnaround
By Greg Elias
Scott Roth figured a gravel turnaround would eliminate a muddy mess in his front yard and ease access to busy U.S. 2 in Williston Village. It worked, helping keep his yard dry and allowing he and his wife Miranda to avoid backing onto the busy thoroughfare.
But then they collided with a town ordinance.
The couple and their neighbors, Forrest and Erika White, have been cited for making changes to their historic district properties without a permit. The violation could subject each couple to $100-a-day fines and require them to tear out the turnarounds and replace them with grass.
The ordinance is intended to preserve the district’s historic feel. Both Scott Roth and Forrest White say they support the idea, but feel blindsided by hard-to-understand rules.
“To me it seems a bit unreasonable that we can’t have a turnaround in our front yard,” Roth said. “All we were doing is improving on what we already had. We didn’t realize we had opened up a huge can of worms.”
Roth said he and his neighbors never sought a permit because they thought the work was routine maintenance, which is exempt from the ordinance.
The violation concerns a shared gravel-covered area in front of both homes. Driveways run from it back to each house.
Zoning Administrator D.K. Johnston said the turnaround – he asserts it is actually a parking lot because of its size – is prohibited in front of properties along U.S. 2 in the historic district. The district stretches from Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church to just east of Oak Hill Road.
Johnston pointed to a section of the ordinance that calls for preservation of the historic district’s “greenbelt,” the area between the road and buildings. Sidewalks and driveways are permitted in the greenbelt, he said, but parking lots are not.
“The greenbelt’s composition is an integral part of Village streetscape,” the ordinance states. “It provides space for pedestrians, softens the impact of traffic noise and pollution, and serves to frame and give a setting to the historic structures and other buildings found in the village.”
Since moving to Williston in 1999, Roth said he has struggled with the bowl-shaped area in front of his house, which collects water and becomes a muddy mire when the ground is wet. And he said both driveways are too narrow to allow vehicles to turn around without running over the grass, making the situation worse.
Roth said it cost $3,000 for his share of the improvements, which included laying gravel and doing drainage work. Forrest White said his cost for just adding gravel was $500.
“I think it blends in pretty well,” Roth said. “I don’t think we’ve done anything egregious.”
Indeed, other historic district residents and businesses have paved and gravel-surfaced areas in their front yards. But Johnston said some are grandfathered in because they existed before the historic district was established in 1988.
Others that once had front parking lots, such as the recently expanded Sew Many Treasures business, have been required to move their lots to the side or back when they were altered.
The zoning dispute comes as the town mulls a second historic district in North Williston. It points out that such districts impose additional rules and restrictions for property owners.
Johnston declined to say whether he thought the enforcement action would hurt support for the proposed district. He did note that North Williston is in an agricultural area and so would likely be governed by different rules.
Roth and White had in past years sought permits for changes to their homes. Both said they thought they knew historic district rules and so were surprised when they received a notice of violation in late May. The Whites were also cited for running a business from their home without a permit.
“We are a little bitter about this because we didn’t understand what was going on,” said Forrest White.
But Johnston said such a blatant violation could not be overlooked. He said he and other members of the planning staff constantly drive by the homes, which are located a short distance west of Town Hall.
Johnston and both couples said they still hope to negotiate a settlement. The town would have to take the case to court before any fine could be imposed.
Meanwhile, the Roths have appealed the violation and White said he and his wife plan to appeal. The appeals will be considered during a June 26 hearing before the Williston Development Review Board.
Roth said he likes living in the historic district and doesn’t mind rules designed to preserve it. But he said the town’s enforcement in his case defies logic.
“We really enjoy living in the village,” Roth said. “We’re close to school, close to everything else. But it just seems with this that common sense has been thrown out the window.”