by Max Brantley
You'll remember that unhappy fence builders very nearly destroyed the Capitol Zoning District Commission in the 2013 legislative session because House Speaker Davy Carter's right-hand man, Gabe Holmstrom, got PO'ed about the commission's 40-inch limit on frontyard fences. He wanted a higher one on his house and his friend Patrick Cowan wanted to put a 48-inch decorative fence on his historic house at 14th and Scott, but was refused a waiver to do so. Mena madman Nate Bell held up the CZDC budget and talked about abolishing the agency altogether in aid of Holmstrom's pique. All that history is here.
The CZDC was saved, in part by its agreement to engage in a lengthy public process of deciding whether the fence rule should be changed. Ultimately, it was not. The Commission vote was 9-0 that it comported with guidelines aimed at preserving the historic character of neighborhoods around the Capitol and Governor's Mansion.
And now, here we go again. On the agenda for a Mansion Area Advisory Committee meeting tomorrow is another request from Cowan for approval of a 48-inch fence. But there's this wrinkle. He's already built it and already lost a fight up to the Supreme Court to get it approved. He is challenging the regulatory body to again turn down the existing fence. It can approve it. Or it can deny it and, once he plays out court appeals again, then decide whether to file a suit to have it removed. Perhaps a lawsuit is desired. Holmstrom has complained for months that rules have been applied unfairly to him and Cowan given that other fences exist throughout the district that don't comply with the rule.
You can read the full Capitol Zoning staff report here. It says a 48-inch fence is not appropriate and that the design also removes some of a historic brick walk. A design review committee has already voted 5-1 against the project. Among several reasons cited by staff in recommending denial:
Staff believes that excessive fencing can serve to reinforce negative stereotypes about downtown Little Rock as disinvested and undesirable. And since this property sits near the Mansion Area’s north and east boundaries, it is important to evaluate any proposal at this property with respect to its position as a “gateway” into the neighborhood.
Holmstrom hasn't retreated from the fence battle either. He's purchased a decorative fence for the yard of his house on Louisiana Street. The fence itself meets the 40-inch limit, for which he has a permit. But, a CZDC staffer tells me, it is placed on top of a poured concrete wall (Holmstrom prefers to call it a "footing") that makes the combined height higher than 40 inches. Does that count as fence? CZDC thinks a waiver will be required.
After Advisory Committee review tomorrow, Cowan's application goes to the full Commission next week. Holmstrom just filed his fence permit application. It would be considered next month.
In defense of the fence he's placed atop a concrete wall, Holmstrom said: "The fence was reclaimed from Independence County, where the seller informed me it was from the 1870s, and appropriate to the era of significance of the neighborhood. It's a Stewart Ironworks fence, which are seen on historic properties across the country."
This much is clear: Robert Frost was right. Fences do not make good neighbors.