Historic District Commission takes on backyard rinks

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GROTON — As the cold weather of winter recedes, discussion of what constitutes a temporary structure heated up at last Tuesday night’s meeting of the Historic District Commission when members decided to take on the issue of outdoor ice skating rinks that have begun to proliferate in local backyards.

More specifically, it was the hockey-sized rink built by resident Louie Berube that caught the attention of the commission. It issued him a letter about the structure, asking him to appear before the group last Tuesday night.

It was Berube’s misfortune that his 112 Farmers Row property is located within the town’s historic district and thus came under the jurisdiction of the HDC.

Claiming that the commission was being “unfair” to him, Berube berated members for using language in the letter sent to him that claimed use of precedent in determining whether his rink was permitted under district regulations and for not holding a rink put up at Legion Hall by the town’s Parks Commission to the same standard of official review.

Furthermore, insisted Berube, he received permission to install the rink from the town’s building inspector, who also told him that it did not come under the jurisdiction of the HDC.

Berube’s rink is located largely out of sight behind a barn located on his property.

However, chairman Daniel Barton disagreed with the homeowner, saying that the Legion Hall rink had been approved under informal circumstances more than 10 years before.

Now, with the proliferation of rinks around town, Barton said that the commission has decided the time had come to formalize a review process.

“These things are growing in popularity,” said Barton of backyard rinks. “But we were not singling you out over anyone else in the district.”

Barton went on to assure Berube that there were no violations to district regulations on his property. All the commission wanted was a chance to review the rink and develop procedures for reviewing such temporary structures.

“An ice skating rink is no different than seasonal planters on Main Street,” said Barton. “No one is trying to give you a hard time.”

Berube, however, was fearful that by submitting to a formal review process, the commission might find something to justify forcing him to remove the rink. As an example, he cited a neighbor’s complaint about lights mounted on a pole needed to illuminate the rink at night.

“Seasonal hockey rinks are cool,” soothed Barton before going on to explain that some level of oversight by the commission was needed in order to help ameliorate any condition that might bother the neighbors. “I think that’s the responsibility of the commission.”

“We’re just trying to be stewards of the district,” added fellow commissioner Laura Moore.

“We simply want to document things appropriately,” continued Barton. “We want to be consistent across the board.”

Concerns raised by commissioners as examples of the kinds of things they needed to regularize in reviewing backyard ice skating rinks included how long seasonal rinks would be allowed to remain installed, the definition of a temporary structure, where such rinks should be located, lighting and design.

Also to be taken into account were the concerns of neighbors.

“The board is wholly supportive of hockey rinks,” Barton said after Berube described the location and condition of his rink and his plan to remove the light pole and relocate the lights onto the rear of his barn. “We will not turn down your application for a rink.”

Having reached an understanding, commissioners asked that Berube submit a formal application for review by the HDC. The commission also planned to notify Berube’s neighbors when a public hearing is scheduled in order to address any lingering concerns.

As for the rink at Legion Hall, commissioners decided that after 10 years, it was too late to ask the Parks Commission to submit an application. Instead, they would document and file records of their previous discussions with Parks while notifying them that any changes to the current setup of the rink would need to be reviewed by the commission in the future.