Northern New York Newspapers
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Sat., Oct. 25
Serving the communities of Jefferson, St. Lawrence and Lewis counties, New York
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The defiant one

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Civil disobedience has a long history of bringing about profound changes for the better.

Legends such as Mohandas Gandhi, Rosa Parks, Lech Walesa, Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King Jr., Susan B. Anthony and Dietrich Bonhoeffer all made their mark on the world stage. They refused to accept governmental repression, and their achievements are a testament to humanity’s ability to overcome tyranny.

Jacob S. Johnson of Watertown may not list himself among those historic figures, as his quest for justice is more modestly aimed. But he has followed their example of social protest to decry what he believes is an unfair policy.

Mr. Johnson constructed a chain-link fence near his home on the 200 block of Mullin Street in late August. But in doing so, he violate provisions of the city’s fence ordinance.

In 2011, members of the City Council passed an amendment to the fence ordinance. A resident on Haley Street said that the fence put up by her neighbor obstructed her view of the street.

This, she said, meant she could not back out of her driveway safely. The City Council revised the fence ordinance to prohibit fences less than 20 feet from the street and less than 5 feet from an adjacent driveway.

The black chain-link fence on Mr. Johnson’s property encloses improvements he made to his side yard. These include an in-ground pool with a waterfall, a spacious patio area, decorative stone and elaborate landscaping.

Many people have commented on how attractive the side yard is given the enhancements. Mr. Johnson was in a good position to bring this effect about as he is the owner of Jake’s Landscaping & Lawn Care in Watertown.

But he installed his fence knowing that he didn’t have a permit and that the setbacks were not proper, all violations of city code. He was informed by the city’s Code Enforcement division in early September that legal action would be taken if his property did not comply with the ordinance.

Mr. Johnson said he had no intention of removing the fence and would plead his case to city officials. He appeared before the City Council on Monday, but no action was taken. He intends to seek a variance from the Zoning Board of Appeals and attend the Oct. 21 council meeting to request changes be made in the fence ordinance.

Peaceful resistance has always been lauded as a force for positive social change. But Mr. Johnson should not have spent money on a fence and installed it before knowing that these stipulations in city code would be waived for his project.

If he is not granted a variance or if the ordinance is not amended, his expenditures will have gone to waste if the city follows through on legal action. And since the fence was installed as a safety measure because of his pool, he may have to make other revisions to his side yard.

But this is a case where the City Council should consider making some changes. The obstructing fence on Haley Street in 2011 was made of wood, which made it impossible to see through. Chain-link fences, however, offer greater visibility to drivers and pedestrians.

While he should adhere to the law, we admire Mr. Johnson’s determination to try to bring about something good. It’s not known if he is familiar with Henry David Thoreau’s work titled “Essay on Civil Disobedience,” but he looks poised to add his own notes in the margins.

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