Fenwick grants variance

Like many of its neighboring coastal towns, Fenwick Island has had problems with stormwater and drainage. With an eye toward lessening those problems, the town has long had on the books an ordinance banning impermeable surfaces inside residential setbacks, except for a single walkway, up to 3 feet wide. Preferred surface materials for other areas included stone and shells.

But the town expanded that definition in 2004, simply requiring areas outside the single allowed walkway to be covered with any permeable material — only impervious and semi-impervious materials were banned for driveways, patios and additional paths.

While that still excludes standard pavers (consider semi-impermeable), as well as asphalt and similar surfaces, it was determined by the town that a type of paver called an Eco Paver would be permitted as a permeable surface.

The 2004 case involved the request of Michael and Angela Zeccola to install some sort of pavers for their driveway and an extensive front-yard walkway at their home on Schulz Road. Angela Zeccola suffered from polio as a young woman and lingering effects of the disease have left her disabled, with severe impacts on her ability to walk – particularly across uneven surfaces.

So, the Zeccolas asked Fenwick Island officials to allow them to create a more even surface for Angela Zeccola to enter and exit her car in the driveway, and to allow her to safely spend some time in their front yard — something she couldn’t do on a surface covered with grass, shells, stone or sand.

Michael Zeccola even came up with a compromise material for the project — a new material called an Eco Paver. And the town, reviewing the proposed project in 2004, added the pavers to the list of acceptable materials. The pavers were suggested by the couple’s paving contractor and featured wide tabs on each side to ensure a wide space was kept between neighboring pavers when installed. The finished product had sand installed as a filler material.

Therein lies the problem, as the Zeccolas described it at a May 22 Board of Adjustments hearing. With a sloped, rather than flat, driveway, the filler sand simply won’t stay between the pavers through rains, leaving 1.5-inch gaps that have already proven hazardous to Angela Zeccola on more than one occasion, resulting in two falls and a sprained ankle. The loss of sand has also meant the pavers are disinclined from staying level and neat, creating a further hazard.

“I was shocked to see the condition of the driveway this morning,” board member Mary Pat Kyle commented at the hearing. “You obviously have a problem,” she declared, questioning whether even a person with two healthy legs would be able to safely navigate the drive.

That’s a condition the Zeccolas hoped to remedy with a standard paver installation, using sand as a filler in the much narrower gaps between the standard paver. Their hearing before the board would determine whether they could make that change.

But two of the board members — Chairman Dick Griffin and member Mike Quinn — were skeptical of whether the couple had made enough of an effort to find a conforming, permeable material to try to solve the problem before asking for a flat-out variance for the non-complying standard pavers.

Quinn asked Michael Zeccola whether a single, if long, 3-foot-wide path might allow his wife to tend her flower beds in the front yard without requiring a variance. But Zeccola bridled at the idea that his wife might be further confined in her use of the yard by the existing allowance for the single narrow walkway.

Kyle agreed that there was a need to accommodate the disability: “She should have use of her whole front yard.”

For Griffin, the main sticking point was the Zeccolas’ refusal to try an intermediate solution first. “They have other options. They’ve made a personal choice not to use them,” he said, referring to newer designs of Eco Pavers that might better stay even and level, as well as to stone pathways and Quinn’s suggestion for a permitted — if narrower — standard paver walkway.

But Michael Zeccola noted the extensive expense they’d already had in putting in the first set of Eco Pavers, as well as anticipated similar expense of a standard-paver replacement project, some $15,000 to $20,000. He said he feared they’d try another solution with Eco Pavers or another permeable material, only to discover they still had a problem and then have to have the standard pavers put in anyway.

Kyle agreed that the first effort was enough.

“You tried in good faith to meet the town’s requirements. It hasn’t worked,” she told the Zeccolas. “Do what you have to do to make a surface she can walk on.”

Kyle’s blessing wasn’t quite enough to seal the deal. But she did have support from board members Dave Andrews and John Rymer. The three agreed the variance request met the board’s standards for involving an exceptional, practical difficulty, and they were satisfied that the accommodation was a minimal one to solve the problem.

Just to ensure the solution was kept within the spirit of the ordinance designed to maximize permeable surfaces, they did add two conditions: (1) that the Zeccolas maintain an existing extensive system of roof drainage involving a terra cotta roof and large gutters leading rainwater to the bay (not the street); and (2) that sand be the only filler material used in the paver installation (no epoxy or cement).

Zeccola had noted his particular efforts for drainage on the property, including the roof design. “I did that roof before any of this came up, out of respect to the drainage issues in the town,” he said, referring to the original driveway and walkway allowance for the Eco Pavers. “The street in front of my house never floods, except when the tide comes up,” he assured the board members.

It was enough to satisfy three of the five, who — with the two conditions — confirmed a decision in favor of allowing the family to use a standard paver installation to accommodate the disability.

Board members noted concern about setting a precedent, but those voting in favor were satisfied there was no real precedent, thanks to the specifics of the level of disability and the sloping driveway that made the Eco Pavers such a dangerous attempt at a solution.

Zeccola was eager to discourage the town from continuing to allow the particular design of Eco Pavers he had used. Building Official Patricia Schuchman noted one other installation of the design in the town — on a decidedly flat driveway. A few other installations, she said, used newer styles of the Eco Pavers. Standard paver installations do exist in the town, as well — including in the town park. But they are all in those limited 3-foot widths allowed for walkways.