In November, with the cold approaching and the pandemic worsening, Dr. Ernest Mandel of Newton started thinking about building a home ice rink, so his four boys, ages 3 to 14, could be guaranteed at least some outdoor and active fun this winter. Mandel’s neighbors, with whom his family had established a quarantine pod, were avid skaters themselves and also excited about the idea.
So Mandel started researching rink systems and talking to other rink builders. He settled on the Iron Sleek system, and invested more than $600 in the kit hardware and lumber. It took a while before the weather cooperated with Mandel’s busy schedule as a kidney specialist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Hebrew SeniorLife. But on an unseasonably warm Sunday in mid-December, he started building, with “my kids and the neighbors working together to hold the boards in place, remove twigs and rocks from the area, fill in the divots and holes in the ground, and sand the boards as smooth as possible,” he said.
Neighbors out enjoying the warm weather offered enthusiastic encouragement, Mandel said, and just two days later, Mother Nature finished the job with a snowstorm and deep freeze. The rink came out beautifully, transforming the yard into a winter wonderland. There was just one problem.
“We chose the front yard, as it was the most generous and flattest space on our property for a 20-by-30-foot rink,” Mandel said. “It never occurred to me that the rink would require a permit, given that it was temporary and a foot off the ground.”
The next day, Mandel said, “I got a voicemail from the city inspector and an orange violation tag on the door saying the rink could not be in the front setback and needed to be taken down.” He called back in shock, asking for an explanation, and was directed to the city’s zoning laws.
Anthony Ciccariello, deputy commissioner of Newton’s Inspectional Services Department, takes no joy in squashing people’s ice rink dreams — something he’s had to do on several occasions just this year. “It’s not a fun thing to do, that’s for sure,” Ciccariello said. “[But] whatever the rules are, the city has to follow.”
Skating rinks are considered structures, he said, “and structures have to meet principal building setbacks,” meaning they must be a certain distance from the property line. People often think of a home rink as a temporary structure, Ciccariello said, “and in some ways it is, but it’s not allowed [as one] through zoning.” A party tent is a true example of a temporary structure, he added, while an ice rink is fixed to the ground with stakes or steel rebar.
“We were given seven days to take it down or face a fine of $300 a day,” Mandel said. By then the rink was full and frozen solid. With warm, rainy weather expected over Christmas, he asked for, and received, a little more time from the city. Mandel bought a pump and drained most of the water out as it thawed, and then set his kids and neighbors loose with mallets and safety goggles to smash the remaining ice.
With their hard work and skating daydreams reduced to a pile of icy rubble, Mandel then disassembled all the rink hardware and mapped out an alternative site in his backyard. The new rink would only be about half the size of the original, but that was better than nothing, he figured.
“I went to City Hall to obtain the permit on December 28th, but was told that since we’re a corner lot, our side yard is also considered ‘frontage,’ and we needed full 25-foot setbacks there, too,” Mandel said. In retrospect, he said, this was clearly outlined in Newton’s zoning laws — he just hadn’t internalized the idea that what his family considers their backyard is, in the city’s eyes, another front yard.
“Because he corners on a street, he has what we would call two front setbacks, and that’s usually your largest setback,” Ciccariello said. “It’s usually 25 feet from the street.”
In an already-grim winter clouded by COVID, Mandel said, “I was pretty devastated when I got the first phone call, mostly because of the disappointment I anticipated from the kids.” He also felt a little foolish and dreaded the spectacle of disassembling the rink in full view of everyone. But, Mandel said, “neighbors and other passers-by who were encouraging when it went up were equally flabbergasted and quite sympathetic when they saw us taking it down and learned why.”
Mandel asked about obtaining a variance, his wife e-mailed the mayor, and their neighbor’s 7-year-old son “sent a letter lamenting the disappointment he felt over what was going to be a highlight of the otherwise boring winter,” he said, but to no avail. “I wish they would have looked the other way just this season to get through the pandemic times, and then we could have regrouped for next year,” he said.
Mandel said the Inspectional Services Department was courteous and helpful, though, despite the obvious frustrations. And he eventually gained permission for a smaller rink — at 10 feet by 20 feet, it’s one-third the size of the original — tucked between the house and the garage, in full compliance with Newton’s setback requirements.
“We got our permit and regrouped, and the boys have been skating and playing since Sunday,” Mandel said on Tuesday.