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Santa Fe City Council says backyard greenhouse unfit for Historic District

February 15, 2019

When Iscah Carey started to renovate a century-old property she bought in 2005 in the Santa Fe Downtown and Eastside Historic District, which has strict building requirements meant to protect its old and unique character, she obtained all the approvals she needed to remodel a home and free-standing casita.

But when Carey decided to build an interior fence behind another fence along the street to prevent her dogs from escaping and a geodesic dome greenhouse to grow food for her family, she acted on her own.

Big mistake.

“I would not have willingly risked putting myself through this very stressful, expensive and potentially destructive process had I known,” the mixed-media artist told Mayor Alan Webber and city councilors Wednesday night. “My landscape contractor was certain that permits were not needed, and I trusted her knowledge.”

It was a mistake that will require Carey to raze her greenhouse.

Carey and some of her neighbors and family members went before the City Council on Wednesday to appeal a decision by the Historic Districts Review Board — H-board for short — denying her application for retroactive approval of the construction of the fence and greenhouse.

After a hearing that ran for more than three hours and ended late at night, the governing body decided to let her keep the fence but not the greenhouse. The vote for the fence was 5-3, while the greenhouse was denied 6-2. Councilor Renee Villarreal was absent.

“Are we going to say that you have to build mud hut greenhouses?” asked City Councilor JoAnne Vigil Coppler, a Santa Fe native who works as a Realtor.

“I mean, c’mon, give me a break. That just is crazy,” she said. “My point on this is that we need to modernize. … The bottom line here is that we’re harming our people, and I can’t stand to see that.”

Although the Land Use Department’s Historic Preservation Division had recommended the H-board grant Carey retroactive approval of both the fence and greenhouse, she failed to convince Santa Fe’s elected officials.

But it wasn’t for lack of trying.

“Being native to Santa Fe, I feel strongly about community and integrity and the right to protect and preserve our local way of life,” Carey told the council. “I have worked very hard to create a beautiful home and harmonious community on Apodaca Hill. Therefore, I ask you, mayor and council members, for your understanding and forgiveness in this matter and your support in letting me keep what I have worked so hard to build and protect.”

The interior fence, approximately 6 feet high, has horizontal wooden boards and an oil-rubbed bronze frame, which the H-board said reflected more of an East Asian style. The fence is set back about 40 to 50 feet from the property line.

The geodesic dome greenhouse, which is about 22 feet in diameter and 11 feet tall, is made of transparent polycarbonate panels. Carey declined to disclose the price of the greenhouse, but estimates online show that such a greenhouse costs more than $10,000.

The mayor and council members struggled with Carey’s request.

But in the end, a majority voted to allow the fence, partly because the H-board had approved two similar-looking fences on Martinez and Tony streets.

“This is interesting because I grew up on the east side — my family is from east side — and it was actually the outsiders who came in and started building big walls,” said City Councilor Roman “Tiger” Abeyta, who voted to allow both the fence and greenhouse.

“As far as the restrictions, we didn’t choose to live in an area with a lot of restrictions,” he added. “The restrictions were brought to the area by outsiders and put on us.”

While the governing body voted to allow the fence, the greenhouse was a different matter.

“I want to be clear. In my mind, the issue is not having the greenhouse,” City Councilor Carol Romero-Wirth said. “I think we should have greenhouses in the historic zone on the east side. I do think we could, as the H-board suggested, get closer to fitting into ‘Santa Fe style,’ which we value and which is, honestly, an economic driver in this community. People come here because of our style.”

The city code does not include specific standards for greenhouses in the Downtown and Eastside Historic District, but city councilors said there are general design standards that apply to any construction in the district and that the geodesic dome greenhouse was out of character with the area.

“Are there adobe greenhouses that this individual could build on the land?” Webber asked facetiously.

Later, the mayor said he thought “the appearance of the greenhouse is really pretty hard to make consistent with design guidelines, and I don’t think that the exception criteria were met.”

City Councilor Mike Harris, who lives in southwest Santa Fe, said he was sympathetic to Carey and her supporters. But he voted in favor of affirming the H-board’s decision on the greenhouse.

“The fact of the matter is — and perhaps the reason I live where I do instead of in the downtown, east-side district — is that there are limitations to what people can do,” he said.

Vigil Coppler raised concerns about an individual’s property rights. She also said the city “has been neglectful,” referring to a lack of design guidelines in the city code for greenhouses in the east-side district.

“Then we have an H-board who has no term limits and has been around a long time and I think has created a little fiefdom,” she said. “We need fresh eyes. We need to modernize. We need to change. The result of that not happening: We are holding our people hostage.”

Though she was allowed to keep her fence, Carey said Thursday she was disappointed by the council’s decision. While some of her neighbors showed up to support her at Wednesday’s council meeting, she said her problems started when a new neighbor who moved into the neighborhood from Texas reported her to the city.

Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.