Two complaints by Bristol Downtown Historic District homeowners allege multiple incidents of wrongdoing on the part of two of its ranking members.
A casual attendee of the most recent meeting of the Bristol Historic District Commission (HDC) held on Jan. 6 would have bore witness to a municipal board functioning as it advertises.
A Barrington couple, new to Bristol, had recently purchased an historic home on Milk Street. They wanted to build an addition to make office space and accommodate family guests. They went through a collaborative process with a chosen architect by their side, taking polite feedback from board members regarding recommended materials to use and how to maintain the aesthetic symmetry of the house’s facade from the street. They received approval for the concept and left with multiple members of the board offering them a friendly, “Welcome to Bristol.”
It is an experience that some claim is the norm, and happens a vast majority of the time for a variety of different projects that fall under the HDC’s purview within Bristol’s historic downtown district, which includes most of the properties between High and Thames Street and various isolated properties peppered throughout the town.
According to their description, the HDC functions to “protect the unique physical character, historic fabric, and visual identity of the Town of Bristol,” by reviewing proposals for “any exterior alteration, new construction, landscaping, repair, removal, or demolition of buildings, structures, or their appurtenances located within the historic district.”
But interacting with the commission has been less pleasant for at least two local historic district homeowners, who both formal complaints in September and October of 2021 with the Bristol Town Council after experiencing what they allege to be prolonged, inappropriate actions of two of the board’s ranking members — it’s chair, Oryann Lima, and former chair, John Allen.
The complaints include allegations that Lima and Allen trespassed onto private property in order to spot supposed infractions that could not be seen from the street, and leveraged those observations to make their approval processes more difficult to get work accomplished. They further allege that they have been unfairly harassed and denigrated during meetings, and threatened with litigation.
Both Allen and Lima declined to comment on this story. A request for comment sent to Council President Nathan Caluoro went unanswered.
“My husband walked out of that meeting wanting to sell the house.”
Cathy Del Nero and her husband, Paul, purchased their historic home at 64 Church St. in late 2012 — charmed by Bristol’s commitment to preserving its past and the thought of helping keep that history alive through the restoration of their own historic home.
“That’s part of the reason people like to come here, and we were aware of that,” Cathy said of the expectations to properly maintain the home within specifically outlined criteria. “But we didn’t expect to have the problems that we did.”
There was plenty of work to be done on the old Colonial home, much of it structural, which was completed without any real pushback. However when it came to exterior, aesthetic projects, such as work that needed to be done on the sash of street-facing windows that had fallen into deterioration in the spring and summer of 2015, their introduction to the Historic District Commission’s more contentious side began.
Del Nero said that Allen, who had been assigned as their project monitor — a representative of the board who is charged with helping oversee projects and provide guidance in accordance with HDC rules and protocols — recommended local woodworker and artisan Scott Mathison, whose window work includes the historic Maxwell House in Warren, to perform the sash repair.
According to versions of the story provided by Del Nero and Andy Teitz, the assistant solicitor who oversees legal issues for the HDC, there appeared to have been a miscommunication about what work was to be performed.
Teitz claimed that the HDC agreed to a restoration of the existing sash, which would entail saving the existing structure. Del Nero said that the existing sash was so deteriorated it was “crumbling in [Scott’s] hands”, and that the sash in question was not even original to the house, but was most likely installed as recently as 60 years ago. So they moved forward with a replication project, using only hand tools (per regulations), rather than a restoration. Del Nero claims that Allen did not actively perform his role as project monitor and that she was unaware of the specific work that Mathison was instructed to perform.
As a result, when Allen, who lived next-door to the Del Neros at the time, went by the property as Mathison was installing new, custom-built sash to the windows and not restoring the existing ones, it caused a stir that Del Nero found to be wholly unnecessary and aggressive.
“That’s when all the bologna started. You get called in front of them, you get fined, you get yelled at in public,” Del Nero said. “We were shocked, to be honest. We thought we were restoring a house, which is what you should do. We did what we were told and we used the guy that we were told to use. There was no need for that. It became such a personal attack and such an ongoing attack, it was startling to be honest with you. My husband walked out of that meeting wanting to sell the house.”
The incident ultimately concluded with the Del Neros being able to keep the replicated sash after Allen admitted he “knew all along” that the sash was not original to the home, which earned him criticism from other HDC members regarding his demeanor and tone when rebuking the Del Neros and demanding that they tear off the $16,000 worth of work on the windows and replace the original sash.
They soon found themselves before the HDC again after doing work on a dilapidated patio in the back yard that was not visible from the street, which resulted in them being called back before the board and fined $100 — an issue that Del Nero argues was not within the HDC’s purview at all.
“The only way they could have known what was going on is if they had trespassed on the property. I asked the workmen if that happened, and they confirmed someone had come and done that,” Del Nero said. “I think he [Allen] had been doing that regularly, and when this happened with the patio and I made a point to say he trespassed, he has not to my knowledge been back on the property.”
But according to Del Nero, Allen’s interference did not completely stop.
“He went to the neighbors and told them we were bad and ruining our house,” Del Nero said, an allegation that was confirmed by another historic district resident who had heard such comments from Allen. She referenced another unpleasant incident that occurred when Allen tried to force a conversation with her when she ran into him by chance at the post office in Bristol, which she found unprofessional, inappropriate, and threatening.
“The problem with this to me is that he is in a position of some kind of authority and he can make your life, in some ways, kind of miserable,” Del Nero said. “And that he can use information he gets in a professional context to affect you socially. He shouldn’t be able to do that, it’s just weird. And sometimes he’s not telling the truth about those things.”
“They want everybody to follow the rules, but they don’t follow the rules.”
Zack Fenster does not hide the fact that he can be a persistent, assertive person, but he is likewise insistent on his knowledge about restoring homes. His family has been doing such work it in the East Bay for over 40 years, and he has been teaching civil engineering and architecture for over 12 years.
Fenster bought his first historic home in Bristol at 37 Burton St. in July of 2020. He said in a recent interview that he was unaware of the specific protocols outlined within the HDC’s purview, and so when he appeared before the board in August of 2020 to receive approval to renovate a patio on the property and was immediately confronted with a long list of violations he had accrued unwittingly, it began the start of a series of negative experiences for him.
“They basically said I was an idiot because I couldn’t follow the process,” he said. “I showed them how their process could be easily misinterpreted and they treated me like I was an idiot.”
After this initial meeting, Fenster alleges in his complaint that Lima trespassed on the Burton Street property to find more violations, without his permission or knowledge.
“My electrician was there. And he sees a woman [Lima] walking around in my back yard, and asks what she is doing, that this is private property,” Fenster said. “She looks at my electrician and says, ‘He doesn’t need to know.’”
During their meeting in September, 2020, held over Zoom, HDC member Ben Bergenholtz asked if a site visit had been conducted at the property after becoming suspicious as to how certain violations were observed. Fenster then revealed what had happened with the electrician, an allegation that Lima did not deny.
“That’s fine, and that’s what happened,” Lima said during the meeting in response to Fenster’s allegation. “However, I have been on the Historic District Commission for over 20-something years, and I have made it part of my responsibility to know the property that I’m looking at.”
“Nobody should be walking onto private property,” interjected Bergenholtz.
Fenster sold the Burton Street property in January of 2021, and then butted heads with the committee again after purchasing 326 Thames St., which he intends to renovate and hold onto as an investment property. The issue at hand this time was the paving of a driveway off Thames Street over what was an area of previously-unkempt lawn. Despite, to his claim, having all the necessary calculations to show that the driveway was within the acceptable terms of the HDC, he still encountered resistance at their October, 2021 meeting.
"They still didn’t want it,” he said. “What doesn’t make any sense is I’m within my zoning rights. I have a stamped plan from the zoning official approving it, and they’re denying it. It’s so frustrating because it’s like when they make their decisions, they’re subjective, it’s just about how they’re feeling at the time.”
The issue was continued once, and then the board’s November meeting was postponed due to a scheduling error. With the cold weather approaching and time to pave driveways growing short — and his frustrations growing — Fenster made a decision to go forward with the driveway and accept any HDC punishments that followed. At the same time this was all going on, a property directly next door to him on Thames Street was paving a larger driveway of their own, which met no resistance from the commission.
“They say they want everybody to follow the rules, but they don’t follow the rules, and they are breaking laws,” Fenster said. “Do they get fined? No. Is there any kind of ramifications? No. They get a stern talking to.”
It should be noted that Allen and Lima have recused themselves from the commission for all matters related to Fenster when he comes before them with issues for discussion, at the recommendation of Teitz.
Council finds no cause for removal
Del Nero and Fenster’s complaints, filed on Sept. 28 and Oct. 6 of 2021 respectively, include further details not explored here that outline a pattern of what they allege is unfair and unacceptable treatment by Lima and Allen. These complaints raised enough questions to warrant a docket item held in executive session of the Bristol Town Council on Oct. 20 to discuss the matter. However, the end result was not what the complainants felt appropriate.
“After due investigation, and deliberation (without Ms. Lima and Mr. Allen present), the Town Council did not find sufficient cause to remove either of them from the HDC,” states Calouro in a letter to Fenster about the outcome. “The Town Council did reiterate to Ms. Lima and Mr. Allen its expectations that all parties appearing before any board or commission be treated fairly and with the utmost respect.”
A memo was sent out by Teitz on Oct. 14, 2020 to the members of the Bristol Zoning Board and members of the Bristol Planning Board. The memo briefly but firmly outlines that trespassing on private property without consent is not acceptable, and to contact the Zoning Enforcement Officer or Administrative Officer or Code Compliance Coordinator if there is a possible issue at hand.
An updated memo, sent by Teitz on Dec. 20, 2020, again went to the Planning Board, Zoning Board — and this time to the Historic District Commission. This memo included a section on proper etiquette at meetings in addition to the notice about not trespassing on private property.
“All people appearing before any board or commission, be they applicants or objectors, should be treated fairly and with the utmost respect,” the memo, from Teitz, reads. “Sometime [sic] it is not what we say but how we say it that causes people to feel disrespected. As I often point out in my training sessions, most people do NOT read the newspapers or follow politics, and their appearance at your board or commission meeting may be their only personal connection to ‘the government.’ While we may not always achieve it, it is the GOAL of the Town of Bristol that every person who appears before any Bristol board or commission should come away believing that they have been listened to and their views considered, even if the outcome was not in his/her favor.”
Teitz defends the HDC
Assistant Solicitor Teitz said in a recent interview that the vast majority of people who come before the HDC do not experience negative incidents like those detailed by Del Nero and Fenster. He said most issues that come before the board can be done administratively through simple paperwork, without requiring an appearance.
“In addition to the fact that the vast majority of people who show up before the board don’t have any issues, there is a larger group of people who don’t even come before the board,” he said, stating that there were more than 80 such administrative approvals in an average year before the pandemic.
Teitz said that the HDC, like any other board, is comprised of multiple people with different opinions and views on each individual topic that comes before them.
“Does that occasionally result in disparate treatment? I don’t think it happens often, but it does happen occasionally,” he said.
Teitz said that both Del Nero and Fenster had conducted work outside the realm of their received approval by the board — the window sash incident by Del Nero, and the driveway incident for Fenster.
Asked if personal feelings about individual applicants had any bearing on Lima and Allen’s decisions regarding their applications, he denied such a notion.
“I have not seen any evidence of any retaliatory behavior,” he said. Teitz said he has been involved with the board for about 35 years, and that his role as a regular attendee of meetings has been ongoing for 20.