Lorena Cifuentes faces the League City Historic Commission again June 18 in her efforts to make home improvements.
Commission members came up with a compromise in May to allow her to continue building a 6-foot-6-inch tall fence, and Planning and Zoning Commission members decided June 5 not to force her to build an expensive and elaborate alternative fence.
She can continue building her privacy fence, but the city government is now requiring Cifuentes to go back to the Historic Commission on June 18 to get permission to keep some windows that don’t comply with standards.
And they also want the Historic Commission to discuss the handrail on the Cifuentes porch.
The Cifuentes family did not start any of these projects until it got the go-ahead from city officials. League City planners are sympathetic with the family and say new software they began using this month will end this type of dysfunction between different departments. But the transition to flag properties that fall under extra regulations won’t help anyone this month.
Asked three times
Cifuentes is a widow with three children who lives on Fourth Street between Illinois and North Iowa avenues in one of League City’s older neighborhoods. The area falls under the city’s residential neighborhood conservation overlay standards, which are stricter than other parts of the city when it comes to things such as fences and windows.
Her husband, Victor Cifuentes went to city officials in 2016 to get a permit to build a fence and to replace windows in the family home on Fourth Street, said Beth Hetico, who serves on the Historic Commission. City officials told him he didn’t need a permit to build a fence but issued paperwork for the windows, city planners said.
But those officials were wrong, as his wife would learn later.
Victor Cifuentes died of cancer in September 2016. Lorena Cifuentes began building the solid wood fence in 2017, but she checked again with the city before starting the large and costly project.
A neighbor saw the work going on and then told her that type of fence wasn’t allowed. League City’s standards require that a fence be 50 percent transparent in the neighborhood Cifuentes lives in.
So Lorena Cifuentes went back to city hall to ask whether she could build the fence, and again, city officials told her she could. Until they told her she couldn’t.
Someone in the neighborhood called the city to complain, so city staff researched the address and the standards and then told Cifuentes to stop the fence construction to clear up the matter before the Historic Commission and then the Planning and Zoning Commission.
The Historic Commission recommended Cifuentes have a 50 percent transparent fence only in the front, then sent the measure to the Planning and Zoning Commission, which decided that Cifuentes could build her privacy fence as she and her husband planned.
Now she has to clear up the matter about her 10 windows and her porch rail.
Stephen Hetico, who is married to Beth Hetico and is a neighbor of Cifuentes, came home one day to see city officials in the Cifuentes yard measuring the windows and the porch rail. The property has improved since the Cifuentes family moved there, he said.
The focus on the Cifuentes family appears unending and disproportionate, Hetico said.
“It’s just wrong of the city to do that,” he said. “To pick on her is wrong.”
City Councilman Larry Millican spoke June 5 during the public comment portion of the Planning and Zoning Commission. He did not agree with the Historic Commission’s suggestions to allow Cifuentes to build a 50-percent transparent fence in the front but solid-wood privacy fences on the side and back. She should build at 50-percent transparent fence all the way around, he said.
“You need to start somewhere with rules and regulations,” Millican said.
Allowing Cifuentes to have a solid privacy fence was unfair to residents who complied with the standards, Millican said.
Cifuentes’ defenders, such as the Heticos, point out that no one in the city ever told Cifuentes what the standards were any of the three times the family asked. City officials confirm this account.
At least 35 other residential properties in the historic district have fences that do not meet the 50 percent transparent rule, city staff said.
“A number are in compliance,” Planner Chris Carpenter said. “Most have no fences.”
An unneeded rule?
The city staff isn’t especially fond of the 50-percent transparent fence rule in historic districts. It is one of the standards the city enacted in 2013 with the residential neighborhood conservation overlay. And it may not be needed in historic districts, Carpenter said.
Assistant Director of Planning and Development Frankie Legaux has worked in cities with strict historic standards, such as Natchez, Miss., before moving to League City to take this job in 2016.
“I’ve never seen transparency in fences in ordinances,” Legaux said. Normally, what cities require in similar districts is that a front facade only have a 4-foot high fence, then anything on the side or rear could be taller and opaque, she said.
City staff recommended that Cifuentes be allowed to build her solid fence as planned, but if the Planning and Zoning Commission did not want that, the staff had an alternative suggestion that was similar to the Historic Commission recommendation. The alternative was a solid fence on the bottom with lattice and decorative wood on top.
“It’s really expensive,” Planning and Zoning Commission member Annette Ramirez said. “Our citizens need to be able to count on what we tell them. It’s not fair to make her go back and spend more money because we made a mistake. It’s not right.”
The Planning and Zoning Commission voted unanimously to allow Cifuentes to continue building the solid-wood fence.
The city is now using new software that flags any permit for properties in historic districts or in residential neighborhood conservation overlays. The new safeguard should prevent residents from getting the wrong information about permits and standards. It should prevent confusion, city staff said.
So the next time someone needs to replace windows, the city should provide correct information the first time.
“We need a human face on the historic district,” Beth Hetico said.