Neighbors of J. Michael McCann say the gate on the side of his house is “well over” 7 feet tall. When told of the allegation, McCann estimates its height at about 6-and-a-half feet. A Stanley tape measure indicates the gate is actually 7 feet, 1-and-a-quarter inch.
At most addresses in the District, the dimensions of a garden gate aren’t enough to trigger a community row. McCann’s house, however, isn’t most addresses. It’s 3133 Q St. NW, in historic Georgetown.
McCann’s outsized gate is not a problem in itself, according to his neighbors. The real scandal, they say, is the backyard activity that the gate is blocking from view: construction of a 10-by-12 garden shed. The shed’s plywood shell has remained untouched since April 15, when a city inspector slapped McCann with a stop-work order for failing to acquire a building permit.
McCann’s neighbors don’t want work to resume: “We…are very troubled about a half-built cottage in the rear garden of 3313 Q St. NW. This structure looms high above our garden fences, intrudes on our garden views from our terraces and rear windows, alters the character of our neighborhood of uninterrupted gardens…”
That indictment comes from a June 30 letter from McCann’s neighbors to the Commission of Fine Arts (CFA), a panel that reviews construction projects and renovations that affect the federal city’s historic character. One catch: CFA rules only on alterations that are visible from a public way. Chief shed opponent James Backas suggests his neighbor is hip to the regulations. “Mr. McCann has erected a gate to the passageway next to the house on his property that is well above the seven-foot legal limit, presumably to block the cottage’s visibility from the public spaces in front of the property…” writes Backas.
In a July 8 ruling, CFA declined to pass judgment on McCann’s backyard activities, noting that the project is “not visible from public space.” If McCann’s gate were a foot or so shorter, says activist Westy Byrd, the structure would have to come down. “I happen to know that the Commission of Fine Arts would have rejected the shed,” says Byrd, the community’s former advisory neighborhood commissioner.
Although Byrd signed the petition complaining about sight lines, the shed has never clouded her vision: She lived on a different Georgetown block before moving two neigborhoods away. Other petitioners have equally shaky grounds for challenging McCann’s shed. Page Wilson concedes that she can only glimpse the shed from her “wonderful porch with wisteria growing along it.” She’s joined the fight against the structure because “I just think it’s nice for neighbors to be neighborly,” says Wilson. And James Albrecht, who signed the petition out of sympathy for Backas, admits, “It’s no aesthetic crisis for me.”
All of which has McCann convinced that the anti-shed movement is the sole handiwork of Backas. “He doesn’t want to sit in his garden patio,” says McCann, “and look up at a roof line.”
McCann insists he’s doing everything possible to make the sight palatable. For example, he’s planning to install wood siding and a slate roof. “How many people put slate roofs on garden sheds?” asks McCann, who has never occupied the property. “I mean, I could have put a 10-by-12 Rubbermaid shed out there.” Backas refused to comment on the dispute.
Roof style notwithstanding, there’s a reason why tool sheds in Brookland, Cleveland Park, and Congress Heights don’t end up as storehouses for controversy as they do in Georgetown. It’s a densely populated community, densely populated by motivated activists with lots of time on their handsenough time, in fact, to master all the regulations governing the community’s authenticity.
To prevent homeowners from putting up clotheslines in their front yards and other exterior decorating faux pas, there are CFA and the city’s formidable Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB). McCann says he was unaware that the shed required a building permit, the HPRB’s go-ahead, or, for that matter, a referral to CFA. “But I’ve since learned [about the approvals],” says McCann.
He’ll learn more on Sept. 24, when the shed makes its debut on the HPRB agenda. The board is likely to approve the structure on condition that it be sheathed with wood clapboards and outfitted with wood windows. “I’ll do whatever they tell me to do,” says McCann.
And then he’ll try to sell the shedand the entire propertyto the highest bidder. “These people, you can tell,” he says, “are going to be here for the long term.”CP