By Josh Davis, Associate Editor
(March 14, 2019) The Berlin Board of Zoning Appeals didn’t go out on a limb, but went out for a limb when members approved a setback variance for two homeowners last Wednesday.
After waiting a month because of a continuance, Daniel and Naquelle Jacobs were granted a reduction to the side yard setback for an accessory building, a garage, from six feet to two feet for their 105 South Main Street home.
Appeals board members were reluctant to rule on the matter last month because of concerns that reducing the setback could be an issue with the county fire marshal. As drawn, the new garage would have just a few feet between it and a garage on the neighboring property.
Board Chairman Joe Moore swore in Berlin Planning Director Dave Engelhart, who brought back information from Chief Deputy Fire Marshal Matthew Owens.
“He said … unless there were living quarters as part of the accessory structure, they would not review plans for it, they would not be looking for fire separation or a sprinkler system, so they wouldn’t be reviewing it,” he said.
“He said they don’t review accessory buildings – garages or sheds – no matter how close they are to adjoining accessory structures,” Engelhart added.
The burden was then on the homeowners to prove a hardship.
Naquelle Jacobs took the lead, saying she’s originally from “a little, itty bitty town” in the middle of rural Ohio and grew up in a farmhouse built during the 1840s.
After living in Ocean City for three years, she and her husband bought a home in Whaleyville.
“When we started looking for a house, I thought I wanted space,” she said. “But it wasn’t space that I wanted so much – it was that little community feel that I was missing from home, which meant we were always in Berlin anyway.”
They then bought a 1922 bungalow in Berlin.
“I fell in love with it immediately, because of its charm and its character,” she said. “It has all the big-old baseboards and the glass doorknobs and the five-panel doors – it’s pretty much everything for me.”
The house also came with a large chestnut oak in the backyard, which Jacobs said was roughly 161 years old.
When they planned to replace the old garage, Jacobs said she wanted to match the aesthetic of Berlin, but also “make the best use of our property.”
She said that meant, rather than shifting the new garage away from the property line, requesting a setback variance to move it away from the chestnut oak.
“Our giant tree … has a giant limb that protrudes over that area,” she said. “In order to build anything … we would have to remove that limb.”
Jacobs said the branch was the largest on the tree, at nearly half the diameter of the trunk.
“It’s actually recommended to only remove limbs that are only up to one-third of the diameter of trunk, in order to not cause devastating loss to the tree overall,” she said. “Removing that limb would likely wind up killing the entire tree.”
Jacobs added, “The tree is over 161 years old – it’s been here longer than Berlin itself has been incorporated. I don’t know about you guys, but that’s really stinking cool to me.”
She went on to say after walking eight Berlin streets in the historic district, Jacobs counted 106 houses, but only four with shared driveways, as they have.
“That’s less than 4 percent … and it’s because of this shared driveway that we’re having a limited options on exactly where to place the garage,” she said.
Jacobs said neighbors had no issue with the garage plans, and it would be a “vast improvement over the current building, which does have structural damage.”
“The proposed building plans allow for an improved structure, which will increase property value and is the best aesthetic option,” she said.
Two members from the Berlin Historic District Commission, Chairwoman Carol Rose and Vice Chairman Robert Poli, supported the variance request.
Bryan Brushmiller, whose neighboring property would be most affected, also spoke in favor of the Jacobs’ plans.
However, for Moore it all came down to the tree.
“One of the things that I believe does make their circumstances a bit unique is the tree,” he said. “I didn’t realize it was  years old.
“My home is also in the historic district and it’s down the street,” he said. “My house was built in 1920 and I have two sycamore trees in the front yard, so they’re going to soon be 100 years old, and I believe that they do have a significance, particularly in the historic district,” Moore added.
The request was approved 3-0 with three members present: Moore, Jay Knerr and Robert Palladino.
Poli, after the vote, said the late Ed Hammond, Moore’s former partner, also would have approved.
“He loved trees in this town,” Poli said. “And he’s listening right now.”
“Ed Hammond would be almost as old as my two trees!” Moore said with a laugh.