Covered Bridge Road house construction

This house being built on Covered Bridge Road in Stowe has riled up its neighbors.

When the leaves started to fall and revealed the house directly across from his home on Covered Bridge Road in Stowe, David Jaqua’s heart sank.

The neighboring lot had been clear cut of trees and the thinning limbs of Jaqua’s tree line was all that stood between him and a two-story home built at the top of the hillside. A large amount of fill elevated the property even further on the hill. With the support of the town engineer, the Development Review Board allowed the property’s curb cut to be moved and a wide swath of roadside tree line removed.

The clearing away of the lot will provide the house’s owner, Chris Meaney, a coveted view while providing his neighbors with an unobstructed view of his new home.

The experience of having the once-serene view from his front porch so brashly altered prompted Jaqua to ask for a change to Stowe’s zoning bylaws, specifically the ridgeline and hillside overlay district ordinance that was established at the turn of the century.

The ordinance is a set of regulations that protects scenic views and the landscape. It applies to a specific geographic area of Stowe overlooking the village. Jaqua would not only like to see the ordinance expanded to apply to a broader area, but be criteria-based, forbidding a two-story house like Meaney’s from being built on the top of a hillside or requiring certain measures be taken to protect neighbors’ views.

In a letter dated Oct. 25 to the Stowe Planning Commission, Jaqua relayed his request that they consider expanding the overlay district.

“I am asking the Stowe Planning Commission to consider modifying the zoning regulations to take consideration of existing undisturbed grade and offsite visual impacts when determining house siting, design and roof heights on hilltop and other highly visible property. We have a ridgeline and hillside overlay district. Give it more teeth. Building on top of a man-made mount at the top of a hilltop should not be permissible,” Jaqua said in his letter.

‘Not the Covered Bridge Road way’

As light snow fell this week, Jaqua gave a tour of the Covered Bridge neighborhood, a secluded, timber-lined area just up the Stowe Hollow hillside from Stowe village but completely secluded.

Jaqua has lived in his 1820 home since 1994 and is no stranger to community action. He served on the town’s conservation commission for 23 years, on the education fund board and the town meeting taskforce. Now in his sixties, Jaqua was wiry and animated as he bounded up the muddy road to show a view of the offending house on all-sides.

Covered Bridge Road is a designated scenic road in Stowe, containing historic Emily’s Bridge, 200-year-old homes like Jaqua’s, an ancient stone wall and views of the Worcester range. This designation doesn’t affect how homes can be built in the area, but Jaqua believes it bolsters his case for tighter home-building regulations in the neighborhood.

“My goal is to get the Planning Commission to change the ridgeline hillside overlay district ordinance so that it applies to all properties that are on a hillside or a ridgeline,” Jaqua said. “If you’re in the district then you’re under scrutiny and you have to kind of demonstrate that your house is not going to be visible from a public road on the land that you control.”

It’s not even just the clearcutting of the tree line or the moving of the curb cut that has Jaqua and his neighbors riled up about the Meaney house, but also the way its owner went about building it. According to Jaqua, Meaney, a second-home owner who also lives in Atlanta, did not warn any of his neighbors of his development and, though their email correspondence has remained generally cordial, he has remained unmoved by Jaqua’s concerns.

On Jaqua’s Covered Bridge Road tour, his neighbor Chuck Geary appeared with his chestnut-colored retriever. Geary also has a prime view of the Meaney house from his residence and doesn’t mince words when it comes to expressing his displeasure toward the building or the discourteous way he feels it was built.

“It’s not the Covered Bridge Road way,” he said.

Jaqua added: “If he’d had to go through the RHOD process, maybe they would have said, ‘If you clear cut all those trees, your house is going to be visible from Covered Bridge Road, and if it’s that visible from Covered Bridge Road, that kind of offends the idea of visibility, since it’s built so high. Now if it was still a little bit lower…’ People live in houses. You can see them from the roads. I’m not saying you can’t be seen from the road. It’s just, if you read the ordinance, there are diagrams and pictures. They instruct on siting that will reduce impacts. Nobody’s saying ‘eliminate the impacts,’ just reduce them,” Jaqua said.

Tale of two houses

While the Meaney house has inspired Jaqua to push for an expansion of Stowe’s zoning regulations, the way the home was built did not violate any of the town’s current regulations.

In fact, the house’s designer, Kim Brown, said the house was not as tall as it could have been, though his role simply involved designing the structure after a civil engineer determined the building zone. (Editor’s note: Brown writes the Ski Bum Corner column for the Stowe Reporter).

“To be honest, that house could have been moved to a point that was, maybe, I would say, conservatively, perhaps another two or three feet higher,” Brown said. “If we had moved it there, it would have involved considerably more cutting of the surrounding woods. I actually made the house smaller than the original design.”

Brown believes Jaqua and his neighbors would be happier if Meaney had built a one-story house, but it’s not the eyesore it’s being made out to be.

“It’s not a monstrosity, by any stretch,” he said. “It’s not a big mansion. I mean, it’s bigger than some of the other houses in that neighborhood that are pretty similar, scale-wise.”

Another house also currently being built on Covered Bridge Road stands in stark contrast to the Meaney House, however.

The house being built by Mark and Deborah Drinkwater on the road sits on property the couple bought a decade ago. After tearing down the existing structure, an ultra-modern home with a walkout basement built into the hillside is now in progress.

The home’s construction prompted minimal teardown of the surrounding trees and, with its low height and spare frame, the house is relatively unobtrusive to its neighbors though, just as different. According to Geary, the Drinkwaters alerted their neighbors to the home’s construction, a gesture he appreciated.

The whole approach behind the Drinkwater’s unobtrusive home stems from its architect. Ernie Ruskey, principal architect at Tektonika Studio Architects in Stowe, said that’s just the way he builds houses.

“I try to get the house to fit in and feel like it’s part of the landscape and part of the topography,” he said.

In addition, new trees were planted to replace those cleared during construction.

What’s next

Jaqua caught the planning commission at a time when it’s considering updates to Stowe’s zoning regulations following the adoption of a revised town plan in 2018.

“This is a larger issue that would really need to be studied,” said Sarah McShane, the town’s zoning administrator. “You can’t just strike out a word and then have the problem fixed. It would need analysis, but it’s definitely worthy of consideration.”

Mila Lonetto, chair of the planning commission, said in an email the commission has set an initial discussion of possible updates to the ridgeline and hillside overlay district ordinance for Monday, Dec. 6.

In the meantime, Jaqua has planted conifers at the edge of his property to eventually give him an all-seasons shield against the view of his neighbor’s new house.

“Patience is required. We are patient people. We own a small strip of land at the bottom of the meadow, just wide enough to plant coniferous trees,” Jaqua wrote in his letter to the planning commission. “So, in 10 or 15 years, the Meaney house will be mostly hidden behind them from our perspective year round. It will also provide some screening from the road. We will lose the view of the mountains behind the house, which we completely accept.”

(2) comments

jtunick

The owner of that new house should be required to plant new trees to block the view from the road.

Goldbrooker

Sure it’s a new house on the road but new construction always stands out. Let them finish with siding and landscaping. How about zoning for really obnoxious things like the giant green peace sign on Stowe Hollow rd or the orange roof on the Winter House on Nine Hearths Dr visible from the quite path. Just saying.

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