RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — The yellow and orange mums and window-sill flower boxes were new.
At first, Ester Hernandez had held off on decorating her daughter’s playset in her north Raleigh backyard.
She didn’t know if the playset she and husband Calixto Hernandez-Lagos had spent hours building for 4-year-old Cali would need to be undone.
“It was just an empty shell,” Hernandez said, after a neighbor complained to the city of Raleigh and a zoning code enforcement staffer confirmed the wooden structure was too close to the property line.
It would have to be moved or come down.
“When I felt like the city was against me I felt defeated,” Hernandez said. “But when I realized all the hoops I would have to jump through just to bring a variance before the board of adjustment I was angry.”
That’s when she decided to change the rules.
DIAGNOSED WITH AUTISM
Steps lead up to the wooden playhouse complete with a pretend kitchen, a small whiteboard for drawing and blue telescope. To get down, Cali can take the stairs or slide down the green plastic slide.
A pink, rope swing is secured under the playset, its location carefully selected for Cali.
Her first time on swings as a toddler didn’t go well.
“She’d get really tight like a ball,” Hernandez said. “It really frightened her. She would like panic.”
What kind of child doesn’t like to swing, she thought.
Cali started having speech regression and would have meltdowns that left her physically sick. She was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder and began weekly therapy to fine-tune her motor skills and speech.
A swing on a traditional playground made Cali feel like she was floating off into the sky, disorienting her.
A raised playset with a swing underneath fixed the problem.
“Even if Cali didn’t have limitations, no child should be restricted (from) having the chance to play in their own backyard,” Hernandez said. “Home is supposed to be safe, and I was determined to make mine feel safe for her.”
CITY PLAYSET RULES
In Raleigh, large playsets fall in the same zoning category as doghouses, sheds and detached garages. A one-story building must be at least 10 feet from the back and side property lines, and 20 feet for a two-story structure.
The rules penalize homeowners with small or medium-size lots, Hernandez said, and moving Cali’s playset away from the property line was impossible with their back deck.
She called her district representative on the Raleigh City Council.
“I was surprised we even had a regulation like that,” said Council Member Patrick Buffkin.
“And I viewed it in two ways,” he continued. “One, it seems like an unnecessary regulation. I don’t see the harm in having playsets next to the property line.
“And two, with all the housing crises and crunch from the affordability issues, a lot of people are going to be forced to buy smaller lots because it’s all they can afford,” he added. “And you might even have some families because of our setback rules who can’t even build a playset in their backyard. And that’s not right.”
On Sept. 7, the City Council agreed to review its rules for playsets and accessory buildings. City staff will bring proposed changes to the council later this year.
While new rules are being worked out, Hernandez won’t have to take the playset down or pay a $500 per day fine.
“When I see Cali playing and all the things she’s doing in her little house, using her imagination and creativity, it inspires me to do more for her,” Hernandez said.
“I want to continue to meet those challenges with her head-on, you know? It makes me excited. It makes me happy to see her out there playing and feeling independent,” she said. “It makes me feel like as she gets older she is going to be able to meet things head-on and feel more confident about herself.”
“And that means the world to me.”