Queen City Academy Charter School parents and staff expressed disappointment and even disgust at a zoning board decision Wednesday over their sign and fence.
The 8-foot chain link fence they inherited when the school relocated to a former temple is in violation of an ordinance prohibiting such fences in front yards and the sign they use to cover up religious symbols on the facade is five times larger than what is allowed.
School Director Danielle West defended the need for the high fence, citing possible dangers ranging from pit bulls to schoolyard shooters and also said the expense of replacing it would eat into education costs. Zoning Board Chairman D. Scott Belin said chain link fences provide toeholds for climbers and no other schools have them.
West said the sign needed to be large to cover the menorah and Hebrew script on the building. Belin suggested filling in the etched symbols with masonry, but West said it would damage the former temple and detract from its historic value.
After more than an hour of testimony and discussion, Zoning Board member Robert Graham made a motion to approve the fence and deny the sign, with the proviso that the fence be painted black. No one seconded the motion. Belin made a motion to deny the temporary sign and require a new sign, and to allow the fence to remain for two years with money in escrow while the school found a way to put up a new fence that would meet zoning requirements. School trustee board president Brian Kramer said the charter school operates under the state Department of Education and he was not sure the $1,000 escrow account would be allowed in the budget.
"Then your only other choice is that the fence be removed," Belin said.
The board passed the motion, 5-1, with Graham voting against it and Belin, Jim Spear, Rich Sudol, Charles McRae and Frank Johnson voting with the motion. Alejandro Ruiz recused himself from the hearing due to a conflict of interest.
The hearing was the school's third before the Zoning Board, but because there were new members, it was treated as a new application. Parents and children filled almost all the seats in City Hall Library and those who spoke raised issues including dangers of a suggested aluminum fence, such as impalement of deer. A school employee said the 8-foot fence saved children from being kidnapped or inappropriately touched.
"Work with us," another parent pleaded, calling Plainfield "a dangerous city."
Resident Nancy Piwowar said she had a "philosophical difference" with the Planning Division over the ban on chain link fences, because people could not see through stockade fences.
"If you see something, say something," she said.
A parent who broke her leg going over a 4-foot fence as a child spoke in favor of the high fence.
"It is a necessity for that fence to stay the way it is," she said.
As the meeting adjourned, West lashed out, saying, "This is such a turnoff" and called the board "so disrespectful and rude." Another woman said sarcastically, "Pat yourself on the back when you go home."
Kramer noted the school is publicly funded, so repair costs would be "money coming out of your pocket."
The school will soon receive new playground equipment through a Kaboom grant which West said involved J.P. Morgan and the New York Knicks, to which Belin and others had responded by encouraging school officials to seek outside funding for the fence and sign from entities such as the Plainfield Foundation. Planning Director Bill Nierstedt recalled Neighborhood House previously receiving a Kaboom grant and urged Queen City Academy officials to contact him first with their plans, to make sure they meet zoning requirements.