Swingset zoning rules spark Westport tussle
Published 10:06 am, Thursday, March 24, 2011
Forget the jet set. In affluent Westport, the issue of the day is the swingset.
Westport officials are mulling whether to scrap a rarely enforced rule regulating the play sets, a dilemma that's already landed the town in court. Its decision on the rule could affect scores of homeowners in a community that considers itself one of Connecticut's most family-friendly enclaves.
On Thursday night, Westport was scheduled to hold a hearing on whether to eliminate the zoning rule on swingsets, which currently fall under the same regulation as sheds, gazebos and other structures that must sit at least 50 feet from property lines.
And in tony Westport, they're not just "Brady Bunch"-era metal sets sporting a few swings, a slide and perhaps some monkey bars. Today's luxury wooden sets can cost more than $10,000 and feature climbing walls, forts, enclosed spiral slides and the occasional turret or penthouse.
Level lawn space can be rare amid the rolling terrain on some Westport lots, though. That means many swingsets sit near driveways, in side yards and in other spots that violate zoning regulations, though the town doesn't aggressively enforce the rule.
"We don't go around prowling backyards looking for swingsets," Westport First Selectman Gordon Joseloff said. "We're a child-friendly town and do all we can to accommodate people. If a neighbor complains, it's the only time we go out inspecting." That's what prompted the current dilemma, though.
In late 2009, a resident complained that a neighbor's wooden swingset was within 50 feet of the property line. Town officials upheld the complaint and ordered homeowner Cary Moskowitz to move it.
But Moskowitz had no other suitable spot for it because of hills and wetlands on his property, so he asked the town for a zoning variance to let it stay -- something Westport has granted to five homeowners and denied five others in the last decade.
Moskowitz was denied, and, rather than dismantling his 7-year-old daughter's beloved swingset, he filed an appeal, which is pending in Bridgeport Superior Court.
His lawyer, Joel Z. Green, said they have spotted dozens of non-conforming swingsets all over town since then and are just seeking fairness. Green proposed the zoning rule change to resolve the lawsuit and to spare other homeowners from the situation Moskowitz faces.
Swingsets of all varieties are a common sight in Westport, where 5,800 of the 27,000 residents are school-aged children and the $182,000 median annual family income places it among the nation's top 100 richest communities.
Green emphasized Moskowitz isn't pushing for an enforcement sweep of others' swingsets. Quite the opposite, Green said.
"Certainly we all agree there needs to be some appropriate level of regulation on land use, but this seems to go beyond what is reasonable," Green said. "I mean, really -- at the end of the day, we're talking about a simple swingset." But the simplicity or complexity of the sets could be a sticking point in changing the zoning rules.
Although Moskowitz's daughter's set is compact and relatively simple by today's standards, many larger sets on the market take up significant space and could be considered "structures" under zoning rules depending on the interpretation. Changing the zoning rules could require drawing a line between smaller swingsets and those larger play sets.
Westport's planning and zoning director, Laurence Bradley, said that because swingsets don't require building permits, it's difficult to say how many might be violating the current zoning rules.
"The ones we usually deal with in the zoning board are the larger ones," he said. "Sometimes they have footings or are anchored into the ground. Sometimes they have castles or boats or other features. We're not going after every little plastic slide." Town officials wouldn't address Moskowitz's lawsuit because it's pending litigation.
If Moskowitz wins, it would affect only his swingset, not others.
If he loses, though, and the town doesn't change the zoning regulations, it's gone on record through the lawsuit as being willing to fight to enforce the rules -- though its first selectman says residents don't need to worry about any swingset stings.
"We have lots of other things to do," Joseloff said, "than go out and see who has a swingset or tool shed in a setback."