Zoning Commission orders tree fort to come down

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NAUGATUCK — The Zoning Commission ruled Wednesday that a tree fort in Burgess Michael Bronko’s backyard violates regulations and must be taken down.

Bronko’s neighbors, including next-door neighbor Andrew Finlay, complained about the tree fort late last year, Zoning Enforcement Officer Steven Macary said. The commission’s decision came during a special meeting held to resolve the latest dispute between the Bronkos and the Finlays, who have been filing zoning complaints against each other for a decade.

The Bronkos, who live at 34 Fairfield Court, have 30 days to request a hearing before the Zoning Board of Appeals. After 30 days, they can be fined $150 for every day the tree house remains.

Bronko’s wife Eileen, a former burgess, told the commission their foster son Zachary asked for the tree fort last year for his 11th birthday and the materials cost $200. The Bronkos said while Michael Bronko was mayor in 2008, they contacted Macary and Building Inspector Bill Herzman about a possible tree fort and were told they did not need a permit for a structure with walls less than six feet high and no roof.

Macary said Michael Bronko had not asked him about tree forts and he would have told Bronko they were not allowed.

“I’ve caught you lying before, Mike,” Macary said in the middle of a shouting match, causing Zoning Commission Chair Joseph Savarese to kick him out of the meeting.

Eileen Bronko said she called land use officials in Waterbury, Watertown, and Torrington and was told tree houses were allowed in those municipalities.

“Does zoning want to go into our backyards and say what children should be able to play on?” Bronko said.

Zoning commissioners and Attorney Stephen Savarese, who is not related to Joseph Savarese, said the borough’s regulations do not address tree forts and anything not covered in borough regulations is not allowed. Macary said he has taken down six tree forts since 2006 after neighbors complained they were unsightly or, in one case, that people were drinking in them.

The commission also addressed a complaint made by the Bronko’s about runoff from Finaly’s property.

The Bronkos complained last year that water runoff from the Finlays’ property was causing erosion in their yard, according to an inspection report from Borough Engineer Wayne Zirolli. In response, the commission earlier this year ordered the Finlays to build a low grassy swale, fortify a berm and regrade the top of their slope to keep runoff from the Bronkos’ property.

The commission also told both families to plant vegetation that would stabilize eroded soil along their property line.

Savarese said prior to Wednesday’s meeting that Finlay has corrected the problem. Zirolli reported the swale and a repaired berm were both functioning after a storm Aug. 1 caused flash floods throughout the borough.

The Bronkos last month sent a letter to the commission saying a drawing Finlay submitted as part of his regrading plan should contain one more evergreen plant, a defined property line and a stone wall. They called Finlay’s one-year timeline “excessive and completely unreasonable.”

“It has been a lack of detail, scrutiny, follow-up and follow-through that has caused this matter to continue for 10 years,” they wrote.

In response to the Bronkos’ runoff complaint the commission told Finlay he had until next June to build a wall on his property bordering the Bronkos’ where the slope is less than 2 to 1. They also said they would send Zirolli to determine whether more plantings were needed on a berm Finlay built. The Bronkos must also mulch and plant their property if Zirolli says so, the commission decided.

Finlay said he thought the Bronkos were using their political influence against him.

“It’s too bad the town had to get involved in a 10-year battle that should’ve been civil,” Finlay said.

The Bronkos and Finlays have a history of animosity, which began 10 years ago when the Bronkos moved into their house, which had been built by Finlay. At one point, Andrew Finlay was arrested after police said he attached the Bronkos’ cable wires to his pickup truck and ripped them from the ground.

The borough in 2006 fined the Finlays more than $14,000 for zoning violations, court records show. Eileen Bronko was then a burgess. The Finlays paid $6,000 and agreed to regrade their back yard where it bordered the Bronkos’ property, according to a 2007 letter from their attorney at the time, Edward Fitzpatrick.