New Canaan's Planning and Zoning Commission faced a dilemma June 24 when a homeowner pleaded to the group to retroactively approve a pergola he built without a permit at 159 Oenoke Ridge.
Ike Groff told commissioners that his architect contacted the town before the pergola was built to ask if a permit was needed, to which a town representative said no. However, the question was asked incorrectly, Groff said, and the miscommunication led him to move forward with the plan and build the structure without requesting a special permit.
In a 5-4 vote, the commission approved the application with the condition that Groff should completely screen any view of the pergola from the street with high and dense trees.
Several commissioners were reluctant to approve the permit because they said it would open the door to other homeowners' requesting a permit after the fact.
"I think the biggest concern we have is one of precedent," P&Z member Jean Grzelecki said.
Commissioners David Scannell and Tony Shizari agreed.
"There is some concern with people hiring architects from outside tending to get away with things because the architect claims ignorance," Scannell said.
Shizari added, "If we approve this, it becomes less of a risky bet for people."
Berkeley Construction's Rob Caffrey, who built the pergola, said he assumed the structure was allowed in New Canaan since it's not named specifically in the town's zoning regulations.
"I see pergolas all over town," Caffrey said. "The whole thing I think was a miscommunication because I thought through the architect that it was OK to do it. I didn't just put this up."
The free-standing structure recently was built on a previously approved terrace connected to the house.
"The terrace outside the house looked incomplete, so we thought that maybe building a pergola would make it look more complete," Groff said.
Town Planner Steve Kleppin said that although this type of structure is not mentioned in the regulations, "it's still an accessory structure."
For a homeowner not to need a special permit, a structure cannot be in the front yard unless it's enclosed.
According to the town's zoning regulations, "a building shall be considered an accessory building unless it shares a common wall or a common roof with the principal building." A breezeway, for instance, is not considered a common roof.
Kleppin noted, however, that the commission may grant such permits. "People are allowed to request those special permits, but they're requesting a special permit after the fact," he said.
If the special permit had not been granted, the Groffs would have two choices, according to Kleppin.
"They would have to either remove it, or try to take the commission to court," he said.
Although he voted in favor of the application, Scannell also was concerned that Groff's family would host parties at the pergola.
"I don't like the idea of having what looks like an ideal party site (in the front yard)," he said. "It would change the street's impact. It would disturb the present feel of the neighborhood. There are a lot of nice houses there, but it's already a little too public."
Scannell and other commissioners suggested requiring Groff to cover any sight of the pergola from outside with various plantings.
"I would like to see some substantial screening," Scannell said, "to preserve the feeling of the neighborhood, to make it more private."
Groff said he understood the commission's concerns and regretted not going through the proper channels.
"Not knowing the rules is not an excuse to break them," he said. "We apologize for what we did."
Groff and his wife, Lesley, were planning to move to the Oenoke Ridge property this week. They were living on Oak Street while building the new house.
When it comes to adding value to the property, New Canaan's tax assessor, Sebastian Caldarella, said a pergola does not make a significant impact.
"It doesn't add much to it at all, as far as value goes," Caldarella said. "It's so minimum ... you're talking about pennies."
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