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Fence battle will move into city ZBA arena

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Jacob S. Johnson picked up the paperwork Thursday to start his fight to keep the chain-link fence at his Mullin Street home.

Mr. Johnson put up the fence at 261 Mullin St. despite knowing and being told by city code enforcement officials that it would violate parts of Watertown’s fence ordinance.

On Thursday, he picked up the packet to start obtaining a variance from the Zoning Board of Appeals. If he turnsin the papers by today, the matter likely will be heard at the ZBA’s Oct. 16 meeting.

Before that, he plans to attend the Oct. 7 City Council meeting to lobby for a change in the fence ordinance.

Since the controversy began, Mr. Johnson said, he has received “lots of support from where it counts” about his plans to fight City Hall over the fence he installed on a side yard, where he completed an extensive landscaping project that includes an in-ground pool. He claimed he has received “a couple of hundred” text messages, phone calls and messages on Facebook from people who are backing him.

And he continues to say he will do whatever he can to keep the fence.

According to the code enforcement office, he failed to obtain a permit for the fence. It also violates the ordinance because chain-link fences are prohibited in residential areas within 20 feet of the street, and because the fence is within 5 feet of Mr. Johnson’s two neighbors’ driveways less than 20 feet from the street.

In a Sept. 19 letter to Mr. Johnson, city attorney James A. Burrows wrote that he had five days to come into compliance. If that did not happen, Mr. Burrows warned, he could take the matter to court “to achieve compliance.”

If it goes to court, the city can issue an appearance ticket for City Court or obtain a court order from state Supreme Court to get Mr. Johnson to comply with the ordinance, Mr. Burrows said Thursday. He said it would be up to City Manager Sharon A. Addison to decide which strategy to take. Ms. Addison was out of the office Thursday afternoon and could not be reached for comment.

But Councilman Jeffrey M. Smith said it would not be a good idea to back down from making Mr. Johnson take down the fence because it “would set a precedent.” Other people who violate city codes then would expect the same treatment, he said.

“He clearly and blatantly violated the ordinance,” Mr. Smith said. “I don’t think it would be fair for other people who follow the law.”

Mr. Johnson has contended he improved the neighborhood by completing the project. It replaces a side yard hidden from the street by a row of overgrown bushes. He said he also was forced to install a fence to comply with state law for pools.

Mr. Johnson also has blamed the problem on an amendment that the City Council passed nearly two years ago that prohibits a fence less than 5 feet from a neighbor’s driveway when the fence is within 20 feet of the street. It was passed to appease a single Haley Street resident who complained that her neighbor installed a fence so close to her driveway that she could not safely back out of it.

Code enforcement officials have said they were just following what the City Council passed in 2011. The Code Enforcement office had no choice but to enforce it.

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