EACH SPRING, Louise Clemente grabs a pail of white paint and gets to work, touching up all that time and the salty Sea Isle City air has stripped away from a beloved gazebo in her back yard by the bay.
Her brush traces over the intricate gingerbread, around the glass panels she painstakingly etched with images of Sea Isle's past, and over the many names along the ceiling, the people who supported her effort to build a monument to all the memories, in memory of her late husband. And while harsh winters might rust a nail or two, they're nothing compared to the decadelong legal fight Clemente's had over the gazebo, or the bulldozer she fears may one day rumble into her back yard to tear it all down.
That's why Clemente, who's in her mid-70s, is ready to chain herself to the gazebo, or go on a hunger strike, until Gov. Chris Christie, Oprah or some other higher power intervenes.
"I don't understand how a city would cause so much pain and suffering to one of its residents," Clemente said last month in her home on Central Avenue.
The issue is the gazebo's height. Clemente contends it's 14.98 feet, under the city's 15-foot limit. The city says the height is measured by the curb of the property, however and city solicitor Paul Baldini said it was built on raised ground in Clemente's back yard.
"The only thing the city is looking for her to do is lower the elevation of the gazebo by approximately 4.89 feet," Baldini said.
The case is simple, Baldini said, but also the "least pleasant" thing he's been involved in in the resort town.
"The last thing we want to do is show up with a crane. If we really wanted to take that thing down, we would have taken it down by now," he said.
Clemente could lower the gazebo's roof, dig out the raised ground beneath it, or remove sections of the post to lower it, Baldini said. Anything she did to cooperate would be a step in the right direction, he said.
"We just want her to bring it into compliance, she knows that," he said.
Clemente, who grew up in East Oak Lane and worked at the Philadelphia Museum of Art before moving to Sea Isle year-round, believes the city is against her because they wanted her to donate the gazebo, so it could be displayed in a public area. She refused because the gazebo was a gift from her children in 2000, she said, to honor her husband. The city even gave her a permit to build it, she said, and there's six pages of signatures from people who support her.
"It's been a nightmare," she said.
Nightmare's the same word a neighbor used to describe the gazebo, though.
"She's a person who does not believe rules are for everybody," neighbor Pat Urbaczewski said of Clemente. "It's been a real fiasco."
Another neighbor, William MacMurray, said the city's been harassing Clemente, though, and should be worrying about bigger issues.
"It's attractive," he said of the gazebo. "It doesn't harm anyone."
A warrant was issued for Clemente's arrest for failing to appear after a summons was issued over the gazebo. She didn't get a variance from the zoning board and has been denied appeals, and Baldini claims neighbors haven't stopped complaining. Clemente's due to appear for another hearing later this month in Superior Court, Atlantic County, where a judge may force a final decision. Frederick W. Schmidt, her attorney, said the current issue is whether the measurement the city took included a cupola on top of the roof.
"Everything revolves around where the measurement should be taken. They are calling what she calls a cupola, a roof," he said.
Baldini said the city never included the cupola in the measurement. It's still too high without it, he says.
Clemente keeps a scrapbook of all the people who visited her gazebo -- nuns, state senators, police officers, Boy Scouts -- almost everyone's been there from town. She also carries around a large photo of Sea Isle City Mayor Leonard Desiderio,too -- because he hasn't been there, she says, and she suspects he's behind the efforts to have it taken down. She's created a website, www.savetheseaislecitygazebo.com, and written letters to Christie, asking for an intervention, though he hasn't responded and a spokesman didn't return a request for comment to the Daily News.
"It's not a Republican or Democratic gazebo," she said. "It's an American gazebo." n
Contact Jason Nark at email@example.com