WINCHESTER — Prior to Tuesday, the Winchester Planning Commission had cast just two tie votes in 30 years.
Four more were added to the tally during the group’s two-hour meeting on Tuesday afternoon in Rouss City Hall.
It wouldn’t have happened had the commission’s full membership been in attendance. Chairman Steven Slaughter, Vice Chairman Mark Loring and Commissioner Katt Eaton had prior commitments, so the four remaining members — just enough for a quorum — carried on with the meeting.
The primary issue facing the commission Tuesday was the fences behind four of the seven homes on South Street, which is one block long and sandwiched between West and East streets.
Each of the street’s seven residential lots are long and narrow, with their single-family homes facing South Street and their backyards stretching to Woodstock Lane. All seven of the parcels are considered double-frontage lots by the city because their property lines abut two different streets, at the front and rear.
Winchester has specific rules about fences in the backyards, or non-primary front yards, of double-frontage lots.
They can have 6-foot-high fences in the rear of the property, the city’s Zoning Ordinance states, “provided that they are set back from the public right of way at least three feet plus one additional foot of setback for every one additional foot of height above four feet.”
The only fences allowed along the rear property lines of double-frontage lots are 4-foot-high picket, rail or chain-link fences, or 3-foot-high solid fences.
Behind the houses at 503, 507 and 509 South St., 6-foot-high wooden privacy fences have been built along the sidewalk on Woodstock Lane. In order to be in compliance, they would have to go back five feet into their yards.
The 7-foot-high, wooden privacy fence at the rear of 515 South St. is already far enough back from Woodstock Lane, but it would need to remove its top 1- foot of lattice and go back 5 feet from East Street to meet the city’s height and setback requirements for double-frontage lots.
Safety is the reason for the city’s height limits and setback requirements.
Winchester Director of Zoning and Inspections Aaron Grisdale said all of the homeowners on South Street have the option of putting a driveway in their backyards, and solid wooden fences that block their view of Woodstock Lane create a potential danger for pedestrians and oncoming cars.
“If a child is roller-skating on the sidewalk and a car is backing out, there’s a chance they won’t see them,” said city Planning Director Tim Youmans.
Also, with high fences along the sidewalk, Grisdale said plows have limited room to push snow off city streets during winter storms.
All four homeowners said during Tuesday’s public hearings that they were not aware of the fence limitations for double-frontage lots.
“She had no knowledge of this requirement,” said attorney Joshua E. Hummer, speaking on behalf of 515 South St. resident Marjorie D. Justice. “She was not told by the fence builder.”
“We were not aware we had double-frontage lots,” added 509 South St. owner and City Council member John W. Hill.
Since Winchester does not require a permit to build a fence, Commissioner Rick Fieo said the city has to shoulder some of the blame for the confusion on South Street.
“There’s no permit process that basically educates the public what the requirements are,” he said.
In order for the four South Street owners to keep their fences intact, City Council has to issue conditional-use permits stating that the structures are consistent with neighborhood characteristics and do not pose a hazard.
Before council considers the permits, the Planning Commission was asked to issue its recommendations.
During Tuesday’s discussion, Fieo and Commissioner John Tagnesi consistently sided with the homeowners, praising the improvements they had made to their properties and noting apparent inconsistencies with the fence policies for double-frontage lots.
“If this was a rear yard [instead of a non-primary front yard], we wouldn’t be here,” Fieo said. “If we enforce this, people are losing their lot line by five feet.”
Tagnesi referred to a photo of a South Street house that does not have a fence, but instead has tall, thick evergreens along Woodstock Lane.
“They’re using shrubs to screen [their yard], and the shrubs are much higher,” he said about the landscaping, which is allowed by the Zoning Ordinance.
Commissioner Kelly Wolfe, who was nominated to preside at Tuesday’s meeting, was unwilling to make exemptions for the fences.
“I do feel there is a safety hazard,” she said.
Each of the four public hearings and discussions ended the same: A 2-2 tie vote, with Fieo and Tagnesi recommending approval of the conditional-use permits, and Wolfe and Commissioner Brandon Pifer recommending denial.
That means the homeowners’ requests will be forwarded to City Council without a commission recommendation, but with all of the notes from Tuesday’s meeting.
Council will have a first reading of the permit requests at its work session this Tuesday.
Also at Tuesday’s Planning Commission meeting, members voted unanimously to:
Recommend approval of a conditional-use permit allowing Verizon to place a small cellular antenna on the side of the Walmart retail store at 2350 S. Pleasant Valley Road.
Recommend approval of a conditional-use permit allowing Robert N. Scully to convert a two-story former warehouse behind 41 S. Loudoun St. into a four-unit extended-stay lodging facility.
Initiate formal discussions about proposed updates to the city’s sign ordinance at the commission’s Sept. 5 work session.
Attending Tuesday’s Winchester Planning Commission meeting in Rouss City Hall were Chairman Pro Tem Kelly Wolfe and members John Tagnesi, Rick Fieo and Brandon Pifer. Chairman Steven Slaughter, Vice Chairman Mark Loring and member Katt Eaton were absent.