March 22, 2007

Well, This Should Surprise No One

SO THE LATEST FAD in backyard accessorizing -- giant outdoor fireplaces with chimneys that sprout hideously into the air -- creates animosity, tension and defiance of local planning officials in a small town. Where is this small town, you ask? The New York Times tells us:

Back when houses had one television set, that was a powerful force pulling families together. As entertainment options multiply, many families say an old-fashioned fire still provides a magnetic attraction.

Kevin Lurie, a health insurance consultant who built a 14-foot fireplace behind his home in Solon, a Cleveland suburb, said, “It’s the only way I can get my three kids to unplug from their iPods, computers, video games and TiVo and actually spend time together.”

They may also may be a way for busy, well-educated, well-to-do families to connect with deeper things, said Barbara Risman, chairwoman of the sociology department at the University of Illinois, Chicago, and executive officer of the Council on Contemporary Families.

“People put a lot of thought these days into how to construct family rituals that are really high-quality, because the time they spend together is not much,” Ms. Risman said.

Some landscapers doubt that their clients’ motives are quite so pure. “A lot of this is about status,” said Paul Dorko, co-owner of Hidden Valley Nursery in Stockton, N.J.

But sometimes the desire for the latest backyard accessory backfires. A neighbor’s complaint about Mr. Lurie’s fireplace led to a political squabble in Solon. And some 8 to 20 homeowners in Solon have ignored a citywide ban on outdoor fireplaces, said the planning commission chairman, Bill Maser. A ballot initiative in November will allow voters to decide whether to legalize the fireplaces.

“This all seems a little silly,” Mr. Lurie said. “All we want to do is enjoy a fire.”

For the record, The Rant does not oppose the construction and use of outdoor fireplaces, which can be really nice if properly constructed and incorporated into the design of a home. An outdoor fireplace can be an integral part of a pleasant outdoor patio and, depending on the climate, a centerpiece for afternoon relaxing and after-dinner conversation for many months out of the year. Furthermore, an outdoor fireplace properly integrated into the design will be pleasing to the eye not only from inside the home but also from well away.

However, The Rant does think it's goddamned stupid to build a giant backyard fireplace in northeastern Ohio, where it is winter six months out of the year, and as such is often unusuable. The Rant also thinks it's stupid to build a giant backyard fireplace which ticks off the neighbors, causing them to report one to the authorities. Lastly, The Rant thinks it's incredibly and profoundly stupid to build a giant backyard fireplace without first getting the OK from one's local planning board, because they have the power to have the giant backyard fireplace torn down.

These are all things which the Luries reportedly did, according to The Plain Dealer of Cleveland's January story on the matter. Fortunately for the Luries, however, the Solon City Council gave them the OK to keep their fireplace, which The Rant would again note is 14 feet tall and cost $8,000. 14 feet. That's more than a story tall, isn't it?

Of course, to focus entirely on the Luries is not fair -- the Times somehow found an even more unsympathetic couple to portray and writer Christopher Maag, who got all reporter-smarmy in his story, didn't exactly paint a warm impression in his lead.

Still, I do find it rather amusing Solon has become a Major Battleground on this key policy issue. I would imagine that many Solonites -- as well as many people living in adjacent communities -- have little more outdoors than a gas grill and would consider giant outdoor fireplaces in their neighborhoods about as pleasant as Texas root rot. Besides, you'd think the real powers that be -- namely, the local homeowners' associations -- would be up in arms about these things from the moment the first bricks were laid.

However, the last thing I would want to do is make it even more difficult for families to spend time together, and if giant outdoor fireplaces help do the trick, then perhaps they should be looked upon charitably. It does amaze me, though, that so many Solon residents are openly defying planners on the issue. There's no defiance in Ohio!

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at March 22, 2007 10:10 PM | TrackBack
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