Berlin Planners Opt Against New Regs

BERLIN – Plant and fence heights on corner lots in Berlin will still fall under existing regulations after the Berlin Planning Commission rejected suggestions to modify the code, which ensures that motorist sight lines are clear at street corners.

The Planning Commission decided to leave the enforcement of those sight lines to Planning and Zoning Director Chuck Ward’s judgment instead of creating new regulations.

Ward suggested new rules for corner plantings and fences after citizen complaints.

Putting the decision back into staff hands could be seen as allowing arbitrary decisions, said Planning Commission member Phyllis Purnell.

“That’s why we wanted to amend it,” said Ward.

Staff decisions like that can always be appealed to the Board of Zoning Appeals if a resident thinks the decision was unfair.

Planning Commission member Pete Cosby suggested Ward create internal guidelines to govern corner sight lines, without mandating those standards.

On corners, vegetation and plantings need to be less than 30 inches high to provide visibility for motorists. Four-way stops, which slow traffic down, are not subject to this standard.

Ward pointed out he does not seek out non-conforming properties. “I don’t go looking for problems. I respond to complaints,” said Ward.

While bushes, tall plants and fencing can be a problem for motorists, existing trees should not be.

“You can pull forward or back and see around it…I certainly don’t want to ask people to cut down trees in town because of a sight visibility issue. I don’t want them planting new ones,” said Ward.

Under the law, all hedges in town must also be kept trimmed to four feet tall or less, which has not often been enforced.

That rule should not be enforced, or should provide for a variance, Cosby felt. If it were, 100-year-old English boxwoods would have to be trimmed back, for example.

“You’re taking away the esoteric nature of the land,” Cosby said. “There’s a balance to be drawn between safety and beauty and esthetics.”

“There’s historically significant vegetation,” Ward agreed.

The Planning Commission concluded that Ward should use his common sense and make determinations case by case. Corner visibility rules would apply to all new construction, however.