Cambridge Building Inspector Demands Teardown of Backyard Rink

Nick Peters, 5, readies for a shot on his backyard rink.

Update 2/14/12: The City of Cambridge has withdrawn the citation and Mr. Peters is free to continue using his backyard rink. Good to see some folks using their heads once in a while!

In these days of Playstations and iPods and Netflix and 3D televisions, there is something so primally enjoyable about a twirl around one’s backyard rink. Whether it’s a skating party with two dozen of your closest, or a private one-on-one with a budding superstar whose wobbly ankles you once supported, the open-sky, fresh-air splendor of an outdoor rink evokes feelings unrivaled by anything powered with a battery. Backyard rinks are directly responsible for shrieks of laughter, overtime Cup-winners, bumps and bruises, and memories that last a lifetime. It is this writer’s view that the world would be a better place if there were more backyard rinks.

Sadly, the City of Cambridge is doing its part to make sure there is one less.

Gavin Peters, a Cambridge (MA) homeowner, father of two boys (five and three), and proud owner of a 24×28 Nicerink setup, received a phone call late last week. Because of the warm weather, a housing inspector had seen the rink and wanted to cite him for having a pool without a fence — as if we rinkbuilders needed salt in our warm-weather wounds. Peters was informed that a citation was not a certainty, but that they were looking into the code.

Two days later, a series of SIX separate citations, including one detailing a violation of the state sanitary code, several more violations of other building and zoning codes, as well as a demand to tear down the rink within seven days was handed down. Were the codes included in the citation clear and concise, perhaps a compromise would be in order, or a minor tweak to the rink design made next year to resolve the issue. But the code is clear as mud, and does not appear to address backyard rinks at all.

“It just lists a bunch of code, but it doesn’t even say it’s for my rink. Only because I’ve spoken to [the inspector] earlier about it do I know that’s what he means,” says Peters. “I want to put the rink up in future years, and I’m not really excited about getting into a really adversarial position with the inspectional services department.”

But in order to keep his rink going, that might be what he has to do. He shared the details of the six citations with me. The first two, violations of the 780 Code of Massachusetts Regulations, were difficult to find online. The third, a violation of 105 CMR 410.750(P), says:

(P) Any other violation of 105 CMR 410.000 not enumerated in 105 CMR 410.750(A) through (O) shall be deemed to be a condition which may endanger or materially impair the health or safety and well-being of an occupant upon the failure of the owner to remedy said condition within the time so ordered by the board of health.

“And so presumably the inspector saw a specific violation of part of 105 CMR 410, but unfortunately he didn’t say which,” says Peters. “105 CMR 410 is a 30 page long document, and the word rink isn’t anywhere in it. Neither is play or playground. Yard is only discussed a few times, and none seem relevant.”

The citations continue. The next three are specific to Cambridge zoning, and speak of accessory use. There are 14 subsections, and Peters assumes the City is referring to subsection (h):

(h) In Residence A, B, C, and C-1 Districts an accessory building shall not be located nearer than ten (10) feet to the principal building or nearer than five (5) feet to any side or rear lot line or nearer to the front lot line than the minimum setback in the zoning district.

The code goes on to define building as:

Building. Any structure built for support, shelter, or enclosure of persons, animals, chattels, or property of any kind.

Since I don’t know anyone who has built a rink to serve as support or shelter, I think it’s safe to say Mr. Peters is not in violation of this particular bit of code.

The last two citations, 5.30 and 5.31, are regarding land use, and dictate how much of the lot must be yard.

Every part of a required yard shall be open to the sky and unobstructed. Awnings, arbors, fences, flagpoles, recreational and laundry drying equipment and similar objects shall not be considered obstructions when located within a required yard.

“And I find myself again thinking, everything is OK,” Peters says. “The rink is structure, like a fence or flagpole, and it’s definitely recreational. I’m using my yard for exactly the intention of the zoning law — I’m using it for my family’s private recreation, in a way that is open to the outdoors, encourages sport, and is generally awesome.”

We completely agree.

Gavin Peters is willing to compromise. His boys are three and five, so he has the potential for a decade or more of backyard fun ahead of him. He wants to come to an amicable resolution. But by citing the Peters family and referencing six individual violations, it’s clear that the City of Cambridge is grasping at straws and using whatever legalese necessary to get the rink taken down. If his rink was too close to a sidewalk or road, it could simply be moved next year, or resized to create the appropriate buffer. But it doesn’t appear that it’s that simple. If it is, one would think the inspector would have just said so.

My major problem with this issue is not the rink or the specific zoning laws, however. My problem with this kind of issue is that those charged with interpreting and enforcing the complex legal code often fail to use a very important part of their brain: the part responsible for discretion. Might Gavin Peters be in violation of some obscure bit of code in the state or local building code? Perhaps — I’m not a lawyer or building inspector, and without the city making it clear what codes are being violated, it’s impossible to know for sure. But by focusing on the minutiae of the building code, we’re missing a more important point: that building a backyard rink and skating on it with one’s family is among the healthiest, most pure pursuits one can undertake in these (typically) cold New England winters. Building rinks, not staring blindly into the glow of a television, is EXACTLY the type of activity we should be promoting, not targeting for building code violations.

All over the world, hundreds of thousands of parents build rinks for their kids, inviting physical activity and improvisation and friendship and memories and hundreds of other things that skating’s indoor cousins cannot. Wayne Gretzky had a backyard rink. So did the Staal brothers, Taylor Hall, and childhood friends Sam Gagner and John Tavares. All had slabs of ice, contained within walls of plywood or plastic, that sat within the boundaries of their yard markers. They all had the opportunity to learn the game, to make mistakes, to try new moves, and to fall in love with the game like many players before them. Now, because of an overzealous local government and their nit-picky clan of inspectors, two Cambridge boys are having a similar opportunity jeopardized. Because of that, Gavin Peters will fight. And he’ll have a whole community standing right behind him.

Cambridge is best known as the home of Harvard University, one of the world’s most historic learning centers. Here’s hoping the inspector in charge of this matter uses his head.

10 thoughts on “Cambridge Building Inspector Demands Teardown of Backyard Rink

  1. Nick

    Great Article Joe and totally agree even if he is in some minor violation #cmonman show a little discretion and human side. If its affecting citizens safety fine but otherwise pretend you did not even see it.

  2. Sarah

    Really?? They are pulling all these codes for a family rink? Is there no bigger fish to fry in this area? Here is a family who is promoting an active lifestyle, and they want to fine him for it? Isnt this what Mrs. Obama is promoting all over the country right now? There is always room to be creative with these “laws”, maybe the township or clerk needs to relook or at least discuss what adjustments need to be done to make this work for both the township and the family. Great article! Us Back yard rink families need to stick together!

  3. Joe Proulx Post author

    Exactly, Sarah. I bet every single backyard rink could be found to violate one zoning rule or another. In the end, like Nick said, provided they aren’t a public safety hazard, what harm is it doing? All it does it takes a great activity away from a family looking to take part in their own backyard.

  4. Mary

    Every night after I put up the rink until the sad, soppy day I take it down, I live in fear of some vengeful neighbor that has no idea how to enjoy the winter months outside. Best wishes Mr. Peters!

  5. matt

    I received a letter from my small town of 2500 people that I couldn’t build a permanent structure in my yard without a permit. I went to a town board meeting and told them it would only be up for three months max and it wasn’t permanent. They claimed that because I staked the boards down that it was considered permanent. I asked them to show me where in their town and county code it said that my three month structure was considered illegal. I liked it to a sandbox only larger and they don’t require permits for sandboxes and sandboxes are up year round. They said they would send me a letter with a copy of the codes I had violated along with a fine if I didn’t take it down. I laughed. That was almost three months ago and I’ve received no letter or fine. I bet this is a similar situation where the town is looking to cash in on a fine and nothing else as long as its nowhere near a road or someone elsewhere property.

  6. Ron

    Has Gaven taken a poll of all neighors that may have seen his rink? He may stumble across the one that made the phone call to tip off the government weenies.


  7. Gavin Peters

    Good news folks: the city withdrew their complaint earlier this morning. They agree it’s play equipment. No word on if they’re going to do anything about the weather though…

  8. Matt

    Government conspiracy to control the weather and keep us rinkbuilders under their control…????? it could happen….

  9. Derrick

    I had a very similar event this year with my 80×40 rink. Neighbor called the conservation office on me about the rink. I happen to live in a flood plain and they do not allow any types of structures in flood plains temporary or not.
    After visiting my house and explaining i can take it down in case of a flood, they allowed me to keep it. I think he also didn’t have it in him to break the kids hearts!!!
    I kept my cool and was very polite with the conservation over the matter and i believe my behavior helped in their decision.
    As far as the neighbor’s??? Hope they enjoy the sound of hockey for the next 4 months!

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