Letter from the Lake: If you have ever had a run-in with your township zoning board or building code official, maybe you should come up to Wrighter Lake in Preston Township, Wayne County, northeastern Pennsylvania.
You, like me, might have winced a little when some zoning board told you that you had to provide drainage for the water run-off caused by your 160-square foot home addition in the midst of an urban neighborhood. What difference could it make, you might have asked. Well consider my little corner of northeastern Pennsylvania. For 43 years you got to my place by driving down a long dirt road, and crossing my small backyard to park next to the cottage, which faces the lake.
Now, unless we are in the middle of an extended dry spell, you don’t drive carelessly across that lawn. First you walk it, hoping not to sink into the aquifer that has suddenly risen to the level of the grass. The difference after these years: The farmer’s pasture above the road has been mowed, trees and shrubbery uprooted, and sections of it have been turned into a garage and parking areas. Look at any one of these small projects and you wouldn’t believe that it could produce the dramatic change in my lawn at the bottom of the hill.
Put it all together and you begin to understand my problem, and why on a much larger scale the Delaware River could produce a 100-year flood — twice within a single year.
You, like me, might have winced when you learned that your home in central New Jersey, while nominally your castle, couldn’t have a tiny addition or a deck — let alone a moat — coming closer than 6 feet on one side and 20 feet (20!) on the other. Well check out the little lakes of northeastern Pennsylvania, where small cottages that have stood the test of time for 30 or 40 or more years now are considered tear-downs, to be replaced by two-and-a-half story McMansions that crowd their property lines on either side.
Fueled by the real estate bubble, people from central and northern New Jersey, the Philadelphia area, and even Long Island are paying unprecedented prices for property throughout northeastern Pennsylvania. And when you have paid $200,000 or more for 150 feet or so of lakefront property, why not throw in another $200,000 for a McMansion with all the comforts of home?
Bulk variances, coverage restrictions, side yard and front yard minimums? Forget it. In Preston Township of Wayne County — a 50.7 square mile municipality with a population of 1,107 according to the 2000 census — there is no zoning. In fact, there is no zoning board. Judging from what’s going up around Wrighter Lake these days, it appears that the only restrictions on buildings are state-administered soil percolation tests for septic systems. And as a neighbor of mine once noted, even if nature lets you down, you can always spend the extra money to pump effluent from a septic tank into a mounded adsorption field.
So our little lake, which has had about 80 cottages surrounding it for most of the last half century, now continues to have that same number of cottages, except that some of them are now two or three times bigger than ever. This year at the annual meeting of the lake association, the talk was about a sewer system that would serve the entire lake. Sooner or later, some argued, the state would require it anyhow, and if we acted now we could qualify for substantial state aid. But by creating a sewer system, others contended, wouldn’t we pave the way for another ring of 80 cottages around the lake, and then another?
I sit on my dilapidated deck, staring out at the still refreshing lake water, and pondering the suburban menace. Notwithstanding the people who insist on bringing domestic animals here, wildlife still flourishes. The bullfrog still croaks out his greetings long into the night. The giant heron is back. The orioles around here are not playing any baseball, but they are zinging from tree to tree down where the driveway meets the paved road.
Kayaks and canoes still outnumber power boats and jet skis.
But the esthetic landscape suffers. From my deck the framing of trees on either side of my 150-foot lot permits me to see four old-fashioned cottages across the lake. They in turn are framed by 21 mature trees sitting between the cottages and the lake. Their view of my side may not be quite as pastoral. To the left of my cottage, two doors away, are two new McMansions. One is framed by two towering pine trees and its facade is softened by a mixture of stone and wood. I’m beginning to like it.
The other dominates everything on its lot, and sits even closer to the lake. The front of this “cottage” has a large V-shaped wing that projects out from the plane of the wall and hunches over the lakefront, looking like the prow of a seagoing yacht that has seriously lost its way 2,000 feet above sea level.
Scale it back a little, a zoning board in central New Jersey might have advised an applicant with a similar project. If they insist on bringing their dogs, maybe I can bring a little zoning.