Different Points of View on Thetford ‘Wall’

By Maggie Cassidy
Valley News Staff Writer

Thetford — Ruth Dwyer refers to it as a temporary “curtain.”

Some townspeople have taken to calling it the Green Monster, or in Selectman Donn Downey’s words, “The Great Wall of Dwyer.”

Thetford zoning officials, meanwhile, have determined the structure — forest-green shade cloth strung across five large wooden utility poles along Sawnee Bean Road — is a “wall” and therefore out of compliance until it goes through a permitting process, which is now underway.

Dwyer had the 60-foot-by-24-foot partition constructed to block the view of a newly built house that she said offends her sensibilities.

“You know the saying, ‘Good fences make good neighbors,’ ” Selectman Mike Pomeroy said this week. “In this case, good fences are making bad neighbors.” 

Dwyer, no fan of the Selectboard, doesn’t see it that way. The 56-year-old has spent about 45 of those years living in her red farmhouse, where she raises horses and other animals. Until about 18 months ago, the view across the road had been a hay field.

“Things have changed,” she said, “and they’re not going to change back.”

A former state legislator, Dwyer was the Republican challenger to then-Gov. Howard Dean in the general election in 1998 and 2000. During her political career, she often advocated for property owners’ rights and was prominent in the “Take Back Vermont” movement following passage of Act 60, a school financing law, and the legalization of civil unions.

When the hay field’s owner sold the roughly two-acre lot for about $48,000 in summer 2013, the new owners had every right to build a new house on it, Dwyer said, and they did, a pale blue, 1,500-square-foot home.

By the same turn, Dwyer said, she should have the right not to have to look at it. (Or listen to it, for that matter. She lamented her new neighbors’ habit of mowing the lawn during the warmer months.)

She has planted 68 young cedar trees along her property line with the expectation that they will grow large enough to provide the privacy she desires. In the meantime, Dwyer said, she had a contractor erect the utility poles when he was there for another job over the summer so she could put up the fabric as a temporary fix.

“It’s a quality of life issue,” she said Thursday, standing in her home with the latest litter of golden retriever puppies she has bred for sale. “I frankly didn’t think it would bother anybody.”

“No offense to anybody,” she added later. “If they can do what they want, I want to be able to do what I want. … I’d like to have some privacy.”

Thetford Zoning Administrator Mary Ellen Parkman said several residents raised concerns about the structure, so she drove by the property, just before the intersection of Sawnee Bean and Colby Road, to take a look.

Parkman said the structure constitutes a “wall” higher than 10 feet tall, as defined in Thetford’s zoning bylaws, and therefore needs a permit, which requires a public hearing before the town Development Review Board. She sent a letter informing Dwyer on Nov. 20, and Dwyer submitted an after-the-fact application, along with a $50 hearing fee, on Tuesday.

A hearing is scheduled for Jan. 13.

Dwyer said that she had no idea that she needed a permit when she strung up the fabric last month. Although she doesn’t consider it a wall, instead calling it a curtain or a screen, she said that she should have known that “anything you do in Thetford, whether it’s on your own property or not,” would be regulated. She said if she is denied an after-the-fact permit, she would appeal.

Caught in the middle — or, more precisely, on the other side of the “wall” — are Dwyer’s neighbors of the past 11/2 years . Coos County native Patrick Perry, who lives in the home with his wife and three school-age children, said after six years in Boston and three more in Detroit, he wanted to return to New England in part because people around here are “pretty friendly and reasonable.”

Approached at his home on Thursday, he said he was hesitant to discuss the issue but he did allow that Dwyer’s barrier “certainly comes across as unfriendly.”

He emailed the Selectboard in mid-November with concerns that Dwyer “appears to be building a billboard-type structure.”

“There were no permits posted that I ever saw, and it seems to me the town has a vested interest in not having Sawnee Bean look like the New Jersey Turnpike,” he wrote. “I regret having to approach the board with this issue because I am a reasonable person and would be happy to talk to her about planting trees in strategic locations on my property to help protect her privacy if that is her concern.”

Perry, who works from home, said most of his neighbors have come over to introduce themselves since his family moved in, and many also have made comments effectively saying “sorry” about the impression left by Dwyer’s actions.

He also questioned why Dwyer didn’t buy the hay field if she wanted it to remain undeveloped.

Dwyer, who likewise works from home, said in the interview at her home that the property was priced too high. She insists there’s no personal animosity and that she simply doesn’t like the aesthetics of the Perrys’ home and is bothered, she said, by the glow of their flatscreen television through their window.

Taking open land that could be hayed and filling some of it with gravel to turn it into a “giant septic system” and a grass lawn, Dwyer said, is something she considers to be “sacrilege.”

What’s more, she said, traffic and other activity has increased on Sawnee Bean, further underscoring the need for screening, and the trees are a “good investment.”

Perry, for his part, said he felt like Dwyer would “really have to be going out of her way to watch my TV” from her property.

Growing up in the Granite State, he said, he appreciates individual property rights, but still wished Dwyer first would have approached him with her concerns.

“I have no interest in having a fight with my neighbor,” he said. “I just wish she had talked to me about it.”

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