NAUGATUCK — How does someone define a tree fort?
This is one of the questions that the Zoning Commission considered during its meeting Sept. 19.
Commission Chair Joseph Savarese acknowledged that the borough has run into problems since it has never had any way to regulate tree forts and similar residential recreation structures.
“As you all know, we have had some issues with this over the years. Tree forts primarily,” Savarese said.
Savarese said the commission needs to address the issues not only surrounding tree forts, but all the forms of recreational structures, such as playscapes.
The issue has come to the forefront of the commission’s attention after Burgess Michael Bronko and his wife, former Burgess Eileen Bronko, appealed the commission’s order to have their tree fort torn down. The Zoning Board of Appeals ruled the tree fort could stay up Tuesday night.
Tree forts have been deemed illegal because zoning regulations do not address them. Borough attorneys have advised the commission that anything not covered in the regulations is not allowed.
The commission is now looking into adding regulations for tree forts and other recreational structures.
Saverese felt it’s important for the commission to have a discussion on the direction it wanted to go and the impact that it would have. However, he pointed out the regulations would not be retroactive.
“We are not covering any type of enforcement that the [zoning enforcement officer] or anyone else involved with enforcement may have taken on any type of recreational structure in the past,” Savarese said. “That’s not what we’re discussing. What we are discussing is … how to define recreational structures.”
Savarese said the commission has to be careful not to over regulate.
“We know what a tree fort is, we know what a playscape is, we know what a tree house is, we know what these things are. Basically they are structures, generally put in place for the benefit of the owners of the property usually in the case of use by children. Now, that being said, some of these things can be very large,” Savarese said.
Savarese explained that the size of the lot should dictate if a resident would be allowed to construct a recreational structure and what size that structure should be allowed to be. He felt that, if the property owner had a small lot, it would not be a good idea to allow a tree fort or playscape to be built.
“It’s not private and, in a situation like that, it would reduce the value of the homes,” Savarese said.
Commissioners were also concerned about the amount of playscapes, tree forts, and sheds that residents could conceivably place on their property.
Town Planner Keith Rosenfeld informed the commission that it already had regulations that defined various structures and what they could be used for.
“You have rules in your regulations that dictate what you are saying right now,” Rosenfeld said. “They are under accessory buildings.”
Rosenfeld pointed out that the size of the structure was already regulated by the zoning rules. He added the zoning regulations also cite a buildable area on any property and how many building are allowed within that buildable area.
“Those all add up and you can’t put as many as you want,” Rosenfeld said. “You can’t just fill your yard with sheds or fill your yard with playgrounds.”
The commission also wondered if the size limits could apply to tree houses and tree forts since they would technically be off of the ground.
Rosenfeld explained in the zoning regulations a structure is defined as something that is attached to something which has a location on the ground.
“It could either be supports by two-by-fours or supports by a tree, it still has a location on the ground,” Rosenfeld said.
He said the square footage of the structure is measured as if the structure itself was sitting on the ground.
Rosenfeld advised the commission that, if they were to regulate tree forts, they might want to set a limit on the height. He pointed out that, besides the safety aspect, there is also the possibility of a breach of privacy. If the tree fort is above a certain height, anyone in it would be able to look into the neighbor’s house.
Rosenfeld pointed out that, while all those regulations exist, the problem the commission has is that recreational structures are not specifically addressed.
“So you need to take the next step. You have to make an equivalent use and go from there,” Rosenfeld said.
Savarese agreed and said the commission needs to break down playscapes, tree forts, and tree houses into easily identifiable definitions.
Rosenfeld offered to do a search for what other communities are doing in regards to playscapes and tree forts.
Savarese said by looking at other towns’ regulations the borough could pick the best and most effective regulations.
“You cross match all these and find out what’s best for Naugatuck, what’s best for us,” Savarese said.
The commission will take up this issue at its Oct. 19 meeting.