Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Fence, Sign Causing Charter School Woes

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.



  1. Danielle West doesn't sound to with it. That is something that she should have known. Do your homework. And, if the school and the parents are disgusted over the planning board's ruling, I'm disgusted over the "ghetto" look this city has. West and the school members should be good citizens and remember that there is more to the picture than their school and fence. It affects the look of the community. What happened to working together?

    Kudos to the planning board for starting to make people realize that Plainfield is not a land fill with junk, but a beautiful city that has been hidden because of people with self serving agendas. I love this board!

    1. Letting the fence stand but requiring that it be repaired where needed and professionally painted was the smart solution - figures that it wasn't even seconded. Please don't tell me that the West 7th corridor is so pristine that a cleanly presented fence would deter someone from entering the city center.

      As for the sign, let the overall dimensions of the permanent sign be as big needed to cover the previous but require that the background be the same color as the wall and the the "active" part of the sign conform to code.

      The only "ghetto" thing left to see would be the black kids in the yard. But, oh, I know you didn't mean to say that, did you?

    2. Stop bringing race into everything. The issue is a fence ILLEGALLY installed without permits by a previous owner of the property. Just because it was there prior does not make it right, glad to see the board is trying to follow the ordinances we have in this city.

    3. As soon as someone says "ghetto" they bring race into it. There's no such thing as white "ghetto".

      BTW, my guess is 2 out of 3 homes in Plainfield, from Rahway Road to West 4th, have had significant work done without permits which is ILLEGAL (just following your ALL CAPS lead). Should we demand that all that work be torn out?

      Solving problems doesn't mean crying ILLEGAL at every opportunity. The front-yard chain-link code ban makes sense in most cases but doesn't have to be applied to all cases. That's where thought and common sense come in. Calling it a "ghetto" look doesn't help the thought process; it stops it cold.

    4. To 4:36pm - FYI I have heard the term ghetto used with various ethnic adjectives before it such as "Italian Ghetto", "Jewish Ghetto", "Polish Ghetto", so perhaps there is no "white ghetto", but not all ghettos are black.

      And you bring up an interesting topic. Why is it that you feel most homes have not had permits pulled for significant work? Administrations had not idea how to manage? People had not respect or want to do the right thing? Curious as to your thoughts as to why people felt they did not have to do the right thing. Also the reason why taxes are high. Permits help off set the expenses.

  2. A compromise dropping the height to 6 feet along the street frontage (which must be Grant Avenue) and as far back as the setback line should have been put forth. In conjunction with the painting, the fence would have been much less noticeable and still give the school close to what they purchased when they bought the property. And no, an illegal fence does not become a property owner's right, no matter who or when it was installed, but common sense should prevail.

    1. Mr. Townley - the applicant was requesting a variance to retain an existing 8 foot high chain link fence that is not permitted in front yards. The applicant was not requesting a variance to install a 6 foot high fence (where only 4 foot high fences are permitted), nor was the applicant requesting to modify the existing fence.

      "Common sense" would show that a "compromise" was not a choice authorized for the boards consideration. The board was authorized to consider whether the 8 foot high fence could remain or not.

      What the board did do, as Bernice mentioned, was to allow the applicant two years to meet the requirement that the fence be removed or replaced.

  3. First off, I would like to thank Bernice for coming out to so many of the meetings in Plainfield and helping to educate its citizens. Knowledge is power and we are all better off for it and I thank you. Second, I feel compelled to add one comment directed at "Anonymous September 4, 2014 at 11:03 AM" and that is simply to say this- If you feel it necessary to disparage Ms. West; please do have the decency to sign your name to your post. It is very easy to speak poorly of someone else all while cloaking yourself in anonymity, but it is also cowardly. So please allow me to set the record straight: Ms. West is "with it". She has worked tirelessly on behalf of the students of QCA and her vision (and ours) for the school and its future alumni are grand. I must also add that her success will be all of our success, as effective (and safe) schools are the backbone of a thriving and prosperous neighborhood. Furthermore, the entire community should support ALL those who bring a passion for education and a commitment to the children of Plainfield, because without them the future of Plainfield is bleak indeed.

  4. Its amazing that the zoning/planning board is going after the QCA over a fence and sign but fail to take a look at the downtown area. Many stores are in violation of ordinances for signage and the like. The boards need to get over the small things and go after the bigger fish to fry.

    1. I don't believe it is zoning that is responsible for what you explained- it is Plainfield inspections.

  5. Isn't there a conflict of interest with Mr. Belin in this case? His sister is the Superintendent of Schools, correct?

  6. With the city looking like it does, I would think that the board would not be making such a big deal over a fence. If it were 20 feet tall and you could not see through it, I would then say yes, it must come down. But it is not and you can see through it. It is for a school and it will help protect the children from what ever they may need protecting from. Fix it and let it stay.

    As to the sign, it will cover the scripts from the former synagogue. It would be a sacrilege to simply plaster them over as you have requested. Allow the sign as a compromise. It is a school after all, not a strip joint.

    Finally, if D. Scott is related to the superintendent, he needs to recluse himself due to the appearance of a conflict. The school should be allowed to appeal the matter as a result of any and all testimony and or influence he may have had during their hearing. Maybe the board should pretend it is still a church and allow them to do what they want?? The fence has been there for years with no prior issue after all...