A fireplace controversy smolders in an Auburn cul-de-sac.

AUBURN – A summer ago, Mark Rock stacked a dozen concrete logs on a grassy, town-owned median and thought he was building a warmer, friendlier neighborhood.

It hasn’t turned out that way.

Fireplace gatherings at the end of Country Club Drive have led to neighborhood strife involving fire, police and city officials.

“I just thought it was the right thing to do for the neighborhood,” said Rock. “I didn’t want to start any problems in the neighborhood.”

The problems began when Rock and his neighbors met last summer at the simple fireplace on the teardrop chunk of land.

They gathered on as many Saturday nights as they could. The fire warmed their conversations while their children played around them. They toasted marshmallows and hot dogs and they talked, getting to know one another in the three-year-old neighborhood.

“This is part of the reason we moved here, to Auburn,” said Christine Banville. “At first we didn’t know everybody, but we got to know each other. I mean, what a great way to get to know your neighbors.”

But not everyone in the upscale neighborhood liked the idea.

Vic Herschaft didn’t have a problem with people being neighborly. He says, though, that they don’t need a fireplace to do that. It doesn’t fit the character of the neighborhood, and it’s a threat to the very children it warms, he said.

“Who’s going to be liable if one of those children gets hurt and trips or falls into it?” Herschaft said. “I just don’t think it should be out there. And it’s my neighborhood, too.”

Fire and drought

The fireplace is on city property, a median surrounded by seven homes. The neighbors have claimed the 362-square-yard island for themselves, taking responsibility for the landscaping and keeping the grass mowed. Four large trees and a smattering of saplings surround an old park bench and the fireplace.

“I’m all in favor of getting together, but why can’t they do it on their own property?” Herschaft said. “It’s not just out there Saturday. It’s there all week long, all year. I don’t think having something like that out there does our neighborhood justice.”

The problems began on Aug. 31 last year when Herschaft called Auburn police to check on the fire.

“The state was in a drought, remember?” Herschaft said. “I just questioned how wise it was to have a fire like that during such a dry time. Unfortunately, they sent out a firetruck to check on it and someone gave out my name.”

Things turned chilly for his family at that point.

“They keep their backs to us now, when we go out,” he said.

Neighbors were upset, according to Maria Labonte, who lives across the dead-end median from the Herschafts.

“He didn’t call us, and he didn’t talk to us about it,” she said. “We’ve had people from other neighborhoods come by and ask about it, but he didn’t. We didn’t know he didn’t like it until the firetruck showed up.”

Fire officials said the fireplace was no problem. So did the city’s Public Works Department and engineers. City Manager Pat Finnigan gave neighbors the OK to continue their gatherings through the fall, and promised to revisit the issue this spring.

‘Great deterrent’

So far, city officials have deemed the fireplace acceptable. It doesn’t violate any city codes. Engineers, police, fire inspectors and city administrators have been out to look it over and have signed off on it. It’s not a nuisance, in itself.

“It’s a small fire in an enclosed space,” said Assistant Police Chief Phil Crowell.

But the neighborhood conflict is in danger of becoming a nuisance, with neighbors reporting each other to the police for every perceived slight – a barking dog, uncovered trash or an unmown lawn.

“We don’t want it to get to the point of the neighbors using police to harass their neighbors,” Crowell said. “We’ve had situations go that route, where they abused police to get at each other.”

Police already have responded to one complaint this spring, an anonymous tip on April 22 that Herschaft’s son was riding a go-cart on the street.

Crowell is not sure that the complaint was related to the fireplace dispute, but he doesn’t like the trend. The frustrating part, he said, is that police want to encourage neighbors to do what the Country Club Drive residents have done.

“There is nothing more disappointing to us than when we respond to a burglary and the neighbors had no idea the family was on vacation – or even what kind of car they drive,” Crowell said. “Getting to know your neighbors, that’s a part of taking your neighborhood back. It’s a great deterrent for crime.”

Crowell said he hopes to get the neighbors together to work out a resolution “before the for-sale signs start popping up.” He’s offered his services as a mediator to help the neighbors mend fences. One option is to move the fireplace off city property to one of the neighbor’s lots.

Meanwhile, the neighbors are staying off the island for the time being. Controversy has nothing to do with it, according to Dan Labonte. They’ve replanted grass and are waiting for it to begin sprouting before they resume their Saturday night ritual.

“I’m glad it’s there,” Banville said. “We lived in Minot before we bought our home here, and we had hardly any neighbors. So, I’d miss it. I’d miss having the fires with my neighbors.”

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