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Monday, May 17, 2010

Fences: Are Council members above the law?

Councilor Burney's property is an anchor of the Putnam-Watchung Historic District.

Plainfield taxpayers become outraged at the thought that some property owners get a pass when it comes to city regulations while those without political clout must adhere to the finest points of the codes and procedures.

There have been many incidents (I recall one in recent years when a then-sitting council member was said to have renovated a house without a permit), but one involving Councilor Rashid Burney caused my phone to ring off the hook late Friday afternoon.

Work was under way to erect a new fence on the Kensington Avenue side of Councilor Burney's property, which faces the corner of Watchung Avenue and is an 'anchor' property of the city's Putnam-Watchung Historic District.

Councilor Burney's property is an imposing presence on Watchung Avenue.

When I arrived at the scene, workers could be seen in the yard behind a scrim, painting plain-vanilla stockade fencing a dark green. Stakes had been driven along the sidewalk line from the rear corner of the property some distance toward the front.

The complaint?

It was said that while Councilor Burney had applied to the Historic Preservation Commission for a review and approval of his fence plans (it would involve a determination the proposed fence was 'appropriate'), the approval granted had long since expired.

Checking at City Hall, the historic preservation specialist was out of the office, but I was told the approval had indeed expired, and that Councilor Burney would have to go before the Historic Preservation Commission once again.

Stakes are in place for fencing along Kensington Avenue.

It should be noted that Burney has for a long-time been a preservation activist, having served both on the city's
Historic Preservation Commission and as a board member of Preservation New Jersey, the statewide preservation advocacy organization. In fact, Burney takes pains to point the facts out on one of his blogs (see here).

So, TWO QUESTIONS arise, which so infuriate other taxpayers and residents of historic districts who must abide by the rules:
  1. Why doesn't Councilor Burney have to abide by the rules and get the proper approvals before having work done?; and

  2. Can the stockade fence being erected in any way be found 'appropriate' for this property, given its integral importance to the Putnam-Watchung Historic District?
Does being an elected official give one privileges to which others -- mere taxpayers -- have no access?

One has to wonder.

Is this 'appropriate' fencing for a historic property of such grand character?

-- Dan Damon [follow]

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Rob said...

If the stockade style was approved, even I might not jump up and down in favor of it, but if he has approval, even I wouldn't walk down the path that we all know is true in Plainfield's historic and regular zoning... SELECTIVE ENFORCEMENT. I doubt the motive would have been calculated or malicious by any means as I do believe the Councilor is for the most part, quite an upstanding citizen. For things I would point my finger at the Councilor for with a look of disgust or rolling my eyes, has nothing to do with his stunningly beautiful property, which is a true asset to Plainfield. But rather his toe the party line and not use the business sense and common decency he DOES POSSESS to smack both the Mayor and Jerry into place. It's unfortunate that on the city council he can be considered such a weak link, yet takes such pride in his property.

Bob said...

Except for those god-awful bushes hiding the gorgeous facade of the house, it is a lovely property. Councilor Burney was excellent when he ran the Council meetings, so I would think he would know enough to follow protocol. I am surprised and disappointed.

Anonymous said...

Councilman Burney can be fairly criticized for not having the best taste in fences, an excusable fault in a councilman. But there is no excuse for the Historic Preservation Commission. How could that body ever have granted a Certificate of Appropriateness for a fence that is so screamingly inappropriate?
Notes from Underground

Anonymous said...

Councilman Burney uses his office to suit his needs. Under no circumstances would or should such a fence be acceptable on such a wonderful home. I would like to see him try that in Westfield. But I should have known, at yesterdays NAACP forum ( which was actually very well run), Burney made a point of telling those assembled that he held up a judicial appointment and he and the Mayor had a “talk” with that Judge to make sure that he understood his role, the judge has since toed the line. There must be something illegal about a sitting councilmember holding up a judicial appointment with threats. Any comments on this?

Anonymous said...

Three shot in Plainfield but "Plainfield Today" leads with "Councilperson [from opposing faction] puts up bad fence." Partisan?

Anonymous said...

I wish taxpayers would become outraged because their sidewalks are crumbling - or their gutters are falling - or they put grass and tree clippings in the street weeks before pickup - or that their neighbor's house is falling down - or that they or their neighbor don't cut their grass.


Anonymous said...

Didn't you say that the Historic Commission said it was appropriate?

Anonymous said...

As someone who follows the laws and rules of our city, I"m dismayed. One is either in compliance or one is not.

It's very simple isn't it?

Anonymous said...

Of course Mr Burney will uphold the law in Plainfield, how you ask? By changing it. What new ordinances are on the agenda that you plan to vote for to appease a few potential voters?

Anonymous said...

This post is purely political hack hatchetry.

First, if Burtney had previous approval, presumably it included the style of fence (which, by the way, according to your photo would be better described as solid board with a dog-eared top, not "stockade").

Second, you don't say when the approval expired, but you imply that it was long ago, but give no actual dates, aka "facts". But I don't care, because in a town where everyone knows someone who has built or remodeled without a permit, it just isn't important to me if his authorization had expired as long as he originally had one. Using an expired permit hardly rises to my definition of "above the law". I'll reserve that for more significant violations, like starting a war without cause.

Third, what's wrong with the look of the fence? What would you have him do, build something at his expense that was super labor intensive turn-of-the-century-gingerbready? Give us a break. It hides his garage and backyard and is perfectly fine for it's use. Anything more expensive, especially given the dreadful state of the Plainfield real estate market, is just a waste of money. Any further restrictions by the HPC would be punitive and pointless.

Last, re. the comment about the Burneys trying this in Westfield: their house, in Westfield, would be worth about 3 million minimum. I'm pretty sure they would be thrilled to have this problem in Westfield, a place where many can afford to have custom fences built to fit someone else's idea of appropriateness.

Anonymous said...

So between this and the gaudy banner he has made that lovely property look like a cheesy carnival. It reminds me of the mayor's banner across another historic property, city hall. I hope the banner isn't flying during the two big events he's having for those nonprofits. I don't think the YMCA will take too kindly to such blatant politicking at their event.

JMG said...

To anon 9:04

Who said the fence is what was approved by the Historic Preservation Commission? No permit therefore no paperwork to verify that it indeed matches the Certificate of Appropriateness. It also looks like it doesn't meet the Land Use Ordinance either, it looks to be too high.

Dan said...

Hey 11:02 AM!!

If you looked at the time stamp on each post, you would see that the post on the (now known to be gang-related) shootings was posted FIRST -- therefore it LED.

It's the nature of blogs that later posts always appear above earlier ones, sort of the reverse of a diary.

Rob said...

No matter what I look at it this way...WHO EVER it is that enforces zoning regulations -- HISTORIC or NOT does on a basis of convenience or "squeaky wheel" getting the grease. Before ANYONE goes after the Councilman for a fence that may or may not be "perfect"...let's pay attention to the satellite dishes hanging off the fronts of houses in districts that don't allow them, broken windows downtown, collapsing buildings downtown, BLATANT IN YOUR FACE CRIME that citizens witness ever day without ANY effort, garbage all over certain properties in PLAIN SIGHT of anyone who has vision, and other blatant dangerous zoning issues. Some or most of these items COULD, YES COULD actually dump $ into city coffers when property owners refuse to clean it up. Again...Whatever the deal with that fence, in Plainfield...there are incredibly WORSE issues that the zoning enforcement IGNORES. The Councilman's house is nice and the fence isn't offensive by any means..Since there is so much ignored in Plainfield from common trash...let's walk away from someone who ISN'T trash and does do something FOR the city. It's not like he is an incompetent Mayor sliding by with the ignorance of party voters allowing him to do as he pleases...that's another topic and person all together.

Anonymous said...

Oh my Mr. Damon. Is it election time again? It feels like only yesterday that you New Dems were beating up on those Old Dems. And those Old Dems were beating up on the New Dems. But now there is a new spin, the New Dems beat up
on the Old New Dems. I am so confused!

It is blatantly obvious that your blog post about Mr. & Mrs. Burney's fence, (which from your own words was approved at one point), really has nothing to with the fence. Right? Fact?
I am so confused.

One fact I do know is that Rashid and Wendy Burney both work tirelessly for our city. They have opened up their home countless times to host charitable events for Plainfield.

I am not confused about Rashid's time on the Council either:

- HALLOWEEN SAFETY: through his leadership the Halloween crime sprees that terrorized us and kept
us locked up in our homes just a few years ago have ended. Each year Rashid brings together the Police leadership and the neighborhood community leaders to come up with solutions. It worked, three years running.

- TRANSIT ORIENTED DEVELOPMENT VISION STUDY: for years I have heard talk about it. But it is Rashid who brought it to fruition. Rashid brought all the parties together to agree on it. He made it happen.

- TRAFFIC BUREAU: do you realize that only just a few years ago we did not have a single police car shooting radar. Rashid pushed for it. . . one now thinks twice before speeding on Leland, on Watchung, on Woodland. And if you speed on Kennsington you just might want to slow down by those speed humps Rashid advocated for.

- NEIGHBORHOOD MEETINGS: when homes in my own neighborhood were being burglarized last year on Saturday nights it is Rashid who brought the Police leadership to the neighborhood! It was Rashid who organized a town style meeting at a local restaurant. Soon after the Police Director implemented more patrols in the neighborhood
on Saturday nights. The Saturday night robbery spree ended.

I am not confused about how his list of accomplishments goes on and on and on. . . Council Meetings are now broadcast on TV, Town
Ordinaces are posted on his blog (even Bernice uses them for reference), on and on. . . .Council Documents are available at the Library, the establishment of a Shade Tree Commission. . .on and on. . . domestic partners in the town's employ now get benefits equal to married partners. . .on an on. . .

I'm not confused about RASHID, and I kind of like the fence, it is green after all!

jim spear

Anonymous said...

I appreciate your defense of Councilman Burney and agree with some of what you have said. However, just because you say it loud enough and long enough doesn’t make it true.


As far as opening his house to charities, they pay for the privilege. The Burney’s charge organizations to host events there, It's not out of the kindness of their hearts.

Rashid is a nice person who has done some good things for the City. However, make no mistake about it; if it’s not in his interest he would not do it.

If you think that his loyalties lay with anyone but himself, just ask the New Dems how long it took for him to sell them down the river.

Anonymous said...

Does everyone know that Burney threatened to cancel the YMCA annual banquet to be held at his house because some YMCA board members put Williams for Council signs in their yards?

Anonymous said...

Plainfield fencing ordinance does not allow six foot fencing on a "front yard" fence.

Given this property two front yards, since it is a corner property, per the ordinance a front fence cannot be above 4 feet, unless you go to zoning board of adjustment to get a variance on the fence height.

I can't tell the height of the by the pictures. But, if it is above 4 feet and Mr. Burney did not get a zoning variance, it is in violation of Plainfield zoning ordinance.

The historic district has nothing to do with the fence height. They can only comment on the fence style.

Lamar David Mackson said...

To whom it may concern:

As a member of the Plainfield Area YMCA board of Directors and the Chairman of the 133rd Annual Dinner and Spring Gala, I can confidently contradict the anonymous poster by saying that the event to honor Milt Campbell at the home of Wendy and Rashid Burney is scheduled as planned. There is no truth to the lawn sign statement and the Plainfield YMCA Board of Directors has no political agenda. Furthermore the Plainfield YMCA is a 501c3 organization dedicated to the upliftment and betterment of the city of Plainfield and the Neighboring communities. Please join us on June 4th at 6:30 pm as we honor "the Greatest Athlete of the Century" and Plainfield Native Milt Campbell , as we present him with the Dr. Jerome M. Wolff Acheivement Award. For more information please call (908) 756-6060

Warmest regards,

Lamar David Mackson,Member
Plainfield YMCA Board of Directors

Anonymous said...

Two comments to add: How many times did I call Inpsections Division to ask them to cite the NORPAK building (old Mack Engine plant) on W. Front St. It looks today as it has looked for more than 10 years - broken down sidewalks, missing window panes. Obviously no citation was issued since there hasn't been any improvement. Rob is correct - they don't do you know what where it counts, they just harass people like Murray and Helga Roberts for chips in their bluestone.
Speaking of Council people above the law the topic also reminds me of ex-Councilor Al Hendricks who was about $10,000 in arrears on his property taxes while he was a member of the governing body. Jeez.