A legal battle over whether to paint a fence has cost the Town of Edenton an estimated $20,000 to defend.

True, the fence is not just any fence, but the newish fence in front of Pembroke Hall, one of the town’s premier residences that is located 121 West King St. within the town’s Historic District.

Seems the Edenton Preservation Commission wants the property owner Vince Burgher to white-wash the fence he built so as it complies with … got to be careful with the proper wording here … guidelines that govern this scenic and historic part of town that draws thousands of tourists each year.

Put bluntly to better explain the reasons for these guidelines, let’s apply this analogy. No one wants a current or future property owner of one of these premier homes within the Historic District to place, for example, a neon flashing Pabst Blue Ribbon sign on a front porch or a bunch of junk cars rusting in the front yard.

That said, while there are guidelines whose intent is to protect the Historic District’s aesthetic identity, Burgher contends that painting the fence does not fall within those guidelines; a decision supported by legal proceedings. He calls for volunteers to join his crusade to fight Town Hall.

“I urge the new citizens of this Town to step up and volunteer to participate on the Boards in this community, for two reasons: the boards lack diversity and a vast number of the board members have exceeded their multi-term limits but remain on the boards’ out of compliance with local statutes on term limits,” he said. “Citizens need to attend council meetings and urge the members to take action on these vacancies, advocate on the projects that are important to this community not fence painting, and to apply for these vacancies online at the Town’s website. Step up Edenton!”

Town Manager Anne-Marie Knighton said Pembroke Hall was in the Edenton Historic District long before Burgher purchased it; rules are rules.

“Anyone owning property in the Historic District knows they have to get the approval of the EPC before they undertake exterior work on their property,” she said. “The District and Guidelines were deemed in the public interest to protect Edenton’s historic structures as an asset of the Town. Even in a pandemic, the Town has enjoyed more tourism than ever before. People come to see our history, including homes like Pembroke Hall and the Historic District and guidelines administered by the EPC protect and promote that.”

The battle of property rights is not unique to Edenton as anyone who has ever lived in a neighborhood guided by a property owner’s association can attest. Terms like Certificate of Appropriateness may speak of a Stepford Wives’ approach to neighborhood niceties, but it is actually a tool to preserve aesthetic appeal, perhaps historic uniqueness and ultimately, property values.

Burgher makes a good case that a man’s home is his castle, but the Town provides a solid rebuttal that says, sir, please, just paint the fence because rules are rules.

Knighton said the matter has gone full circle at a cost to the Town in legal fees now approaching $20,000. However, if the Town stands down, the principles guiding the Historic District may be compromised – a development that affects a town committed to tourism.

“Earlier this year, a citizen asked if it was ‘worth it,’” Knighton said. “I responded that the Town has an absolute responsibility to defend the quasi-judicial decisions made by our boards and commissions. Rules matter. Ordinances need to be enforced. Mr. Burgher bought Pembroke Hall which is located within the Historic District. In accordance with the Guidelines, Mr. Burgher applied for and received a COA for his fence on condition that he paint or white-wash it. To date he has elected not to. If the Town stands down, there are no Historic District guidelines and there is no Historic District.”

However, Burgher remains committed to his crusade until it is resolved.

“Since litigation remains in progress until an order is signed, I will not speak further on our strategy,” he said. “But remain assured I will continue to fight for the injustice in this community.”

According to reliable rumor about town, Town Councilman Roger Coleman has proposed a solution based on a comment by Town Attorney Hood Ellis that “Burgher’s fence is the most famous fence since Tom Sawyer.”

Coleman suggests the creation of the Tom Sawyer Apple Festival to be held at Pembroke Hall (perhaps annually) in which Edenton residents would pay for the privilege of helping to whitewash the brick portion of the fence. Children would be especially welcomed to participate. Funds could be donated to a charity of Burgher’s choice – perhaps the library in support of their children’s programs.

Help would be needed to oversee quality control, so since it’s close to Halloween, maybe the Town can organize a seance to reach out to author Mark Twain to gain guidance from his character, Tom Sawyer, as to how best to paint the fence.

But seriously, think about it – such a solution would prevent the need for any further ruling by the EPC, prevent any more expenditures by both sides on legal fees, make Burgher look like a hero, be fun and benefit the community. Burgher and town residents would be the winners.

And… legal bills would stop piling up.

When Burgher applied for a Certificate of Appropriateness to build a fence along the front of Pembroke Hall in 2017, Knighton said, EPC unanimously approved the fence with a condition. The condition was that he paint or white-wash the masonry elements of the fence.

“Mr. Burgher accepted the COA with the condition and built his fence,” she said. “During the construction he asked the EPC if they would remove the paint/white-wash condition and the EPC unanimously voted to address this request after the fence was completed. As of this point in time, the Town had incurred no legal fees in the matter.”

Burgher completed the fence, Knighton said, but did not submit the requested application to modify his COA to drop the paint/white-wash condition. Eventually the EPC voted to initiate the amendment process itself. They notified Burgher and invited him to participate in the proceeding.

Upon hearing, Knighton said, EPC unanimously voted not to delete the paint/while-wash condition based on evidence that included an original photograph of a fence that had been on the property in the late 1800s.

Burgher appealed to the Board of Adjustments and then to the Superior Court. The Superior Court remanded the case to the Board of Adjustments which has now remanded the case to the EPC.

Burgher has won an appeal twice with the Board of Adjustments to reverse Certificate of Appropriateness.

“Sorry the town fails to acknowledge the reality of their own boards decisions,” he said.

Burgher said Town Hall has bigger things to worry about than white-wash of his fence.

“I want to thank the overwhelming support I have received from the community that is tired of the unilateral decision-making of Town Hall and is frustrated with the personal agendas of certain counsel members,” he said. “Our Public Servants owe it to our community to manage funds for the betterment of this community and to tackle the major issues before us; example being capital projects, resolving decade old unaccounted for financials, curing the water system of TTHM, downtown commerce, to name a few.”

Despite it all, Knighton praised Burgher’s commitment to Edenton.

“Let me be the first to say that Vince Burgher has been a credit to the Town of Edenton not only for preserving Pembroke Hall but for many other restoration projects,” she said. “He may feel otherwise, but we do appreciate him and what he has done.”

Miles Layton can be reached at mlayton@ncweeklies.com