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Havre de Grace fence gone, but not the gate

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The fence is gone, but a gate and the controversy remain.

Havre de Grace's Joe Fiocchi ended his "Save the Fence" effort on and around Commerce Street, taking down the much-contested barrier Wednesday morning.

What he did not remove, however, was a gate that is also in the city right-of-way and which Fiocchi said the city did not request him to remove.

It was unclear as of Thursday morning what comes next now that the gate is still standing.

The fight over the Fiocchi fence being in a city right-of-way dominated the last several city council meetings, taking a new turn when the council allowed a decorative brick wall to remain in a city right-of at a home on Market Street, citing miscommunication with the homeowner.

Fiocchi said he does not know if he will pursue any further action, but he remains convinced he was targeted because of an ongoing dispute with his neighbor, Mary Martin, who is Councilman Bill Martin's sister.

"This, to me, is not a matter of a 24-foot fence. This, to me, is a matter of favoritism and how things are done in Havre de Grace," he said. "I am not sure what I am going to do with it."

Fiocchi does think the controversy made residents more aware of the discrepancies and inconsistencies at City Hall.

"I think this has opened people's eyes to what is going on," he said. "I certainly did not want to make a spectacle out of it. I am not going to be part of shaming the town."

The Rimels, on Market Street, recently had their brick wall approved via a simple phone call to the city, which council members insist will not be allowed to happen in the future.

"That wall is much longer than mine and there was much more work to do there," Fiocchi noted.

The city council said Fiocchi asked for forgiveness on a fence that he knowingly built in a city right-of-way without permission, while Fiocchi said he was given a building permit and no one ever warned him about the right-of-way.

Earlier council debate

At the previous city council meeting on July 2, residents and council members spent an hour debating the fence issue, which the council had already voted down previously in Mayor Wayne Dougherty's absence. Dougherty was back for the July 2 session.

During the citizens comment portion of the council meeting, long-time City Councilman Fred Cullum, who lost his run for re-election to the council in May, questioned the decision, suggesting it was unfair.

Cullum said he was 'a little dismayed, especially after tonight, when there was the same issue on the agenda and it was passed unanimously."

Cullum referred to the approval of a license agreement for a brick landscaping wall on Market Street that was in a city right-of-way.

He said he agreed with Bill Martin recusing himself from the issue, but called the vote "a fairness issue."

The city has been issuing such licenses as a means to be able to recover property, he said.

"If someone owns something for a period of time, they could claim that they own it," he explained.

He largely agreed with Wagner's explanation of the difference between permits and license agreements, but said it "made no difference if it was done before or after the fact."

Cullum said many right-of-way approvals were issued after the fact and were sometimes denied only for safety issues or potential for hazard.

"The vast majority had been approved," he said.

Cullum said he didn't understand why in one case, a wall was approved after being built and, in another case, a fence was built but later denied.

"One was passed unanimously and the other one was denied," he said, adding he was not a friend of the Fiocchi family and did not care about his lawsuit.

About the council's decision, he said: "I think it's wrong; I think it needs to be re-considered."

One fence stopped

Lori Maslin, who also attended the July 2 council meeting, said it was not correct that the fence at her property was built along Congress Avenue before it was permitted by the council.

She said she also tried to build a fence one time and stopped work on it after being told she needed to apply for a permit.

She said the code only said any erected structure in a city right-of-way requires the council's and mayor's approval - "not a fence."

Maslin said there is also no setback requirement in the code, but she was told it was an "administrative policy" that was not written down.

"What I say is, you need to legislate," she told the council. "Legislate what is required."

She also said she is greatly concerned that people will ask forgiveness after building something rather than permission beforehand, if they decide it is financially realistic to pay a fine for violating a regulation.

Feuding neighbors

Bill Martin's sister, Mary Martin, spoke about the legal situation she is in with Fiocchi, saying he has been harassing her and apologizing to the council that they have been "dragged into this" because of her neighborhood issues.

She said the situation started because he filed a lawsuit against her to prevent construction of her home, and said he has continued accosting and harassing her as the lawsuit goes on.

Martin also said Fiocchi has some type of business agreement with Councilwoman Wagner and she should have also recused herself from the vote.

"It was inappropriate for her to vote for her friend's fence," Mary Martin said.

Fiocchi, she continued, "has demonstrated no respect for building a fence on city property after being told he can't do so."

Fiocchi replied her comments were "99 percent untrue" and said he was found innocent in the harassment suit.

'Special treatment'

Councilman David Glenn said he does not know Fiocchi and was not acting on any personal biases, just trying to make a fair decision in regard to permit applications.

Glen said he feels many fences have been taken down, giving an example of someone who had a fence six feet into the right-of-way who "didn't take it down, so the city took it down for him."

"Why would we give Mr. Fiocchi special treatment?" he said. "This has everything to do with the process that is in place."

During the lengthy debate at the council meeting, Bill Martin said he has never before spoken after residents' comments, but felt the need to defend himself against Fiocchi's previous claims that Martin is "a liar."

Both Bill Martin and Dougherty took swipes at Patch.com for comments made against them in regard to the issue on the message boards, calling the website "not real journalism," which "nobody reads."

Bill Martin said he didn't expect an apology, but believed Fiocchi owed him one. Fiocchi replied with an apology for calling Martin a liar.

Council President Randy Craig said he found a case from 2011 in which Wagner and then-Councilman Jim Miller voted to deny the building of a fence of any height on Stokes Street.

He said the history of fence approvals show people often ask for forgiveness, not permission.

"I want to clarify that when you talk about fairness, here is an example of someone that we should allow to put their fence back up to be fair," he said. "Right-of-way issues are complicated."

Craig made a motion to adjourn just as Miller, who also lost his re-election bid in May but was in the audience, moved toward the podium shouting that he wanted to reply to Craig's comments.

Miller's comments were drowned out, however, as the council members started to empty and the council moved into closed session.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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