By Michael Jacobs

Ruth Haas had to worry the past two months whether she could safely stay in her Buckhead home of more than four decades. But after her neighbors in the Kingswood subdivision rallied behind her, her big concern is baking enough coconut pies to thank everyone.

“I’ve been baking pies all day,” the 96-year-old said Dec. 3, the day after Neighborhood Planning Unit A voted 15-0 in favor of her application to exceed zoning regulations by a foot in building a fence and security gate for her home. The Board of Zoning Adjustment will consider the application Jan. 9.

Haas’ success before the NPU reflected such boards’ willingness to focus on the big picture when hardships warrant exceptions to the rules. It also showed a neighborhood’s unwillingness to let its unofficial matriarch go.

Haas gave NPU-A 13 letters of support from her neighbors, and those neighbors swelled the meeting at the Atlanta Speech School. Only six votes were cast on each later item on the agenda, indicating that most of the people were there for Haas.

“This is a wonderful neighborhood,” she said of Kingswood. “Everyone is so lovely and interested in the other person.”

Sally Haas, who lives in Sandy Springs but presented the application for the zoning exception on her mother’s behalf, explained the need for the fence to rise to 5 feet instead of the allowed 4 feet for a limited stretch extending 10 feet to the left of the driveway and 14 feet to the right. She said the downhill topography of her mother’s lot would make it too easy for intruders to step over a 4-foot fence.

“We’re trying to make this as nonoffensive as possible because we’re not real fond of fences and gates ourselves, but I don’t know what else to do as this point,” Sally Haas told NPU-A. The fence is set back more than 40 feet from the street and is shielded by the hill and by bushes.

“It was hard for me to feel that I was being fenced in, but I understand it’s for my safety,” Ruth said.

Sally cited two crimes that drove the decision to build the fence, which was being installed Dec. 4.

First, two men and a woman drove into the driveway in 1999 and parked far enough down that the grade of the land hid them from street view. They then attacked Ruth and ripped the rings from her fingers.

Two months ago, while Ruth was out briefly, burglars used a crowbar to break into her house from the back in broad daylight. There was no fence to stop them and no way for neighbors to see what they were doing.

Sally Haas said she and her brother, Ed, who lives in Marietta and like her is a constant visitor to their childhood home, helped their mother take all possible precautions before resorting to a fence: a neighborhood security patrol; exterior sensor lights; an alarm system; pins in the windows; deadbolts on the doors, now backed by steel plates to repel crowbars.

They thought about tying the exterior sensors into the alarm, but that would make Ruth a prisoner in her own home, unable either to follow her doctor’s orders to get outside and walk around more or to spend time with her plants and flowers on the back deck.

“She doesn’t want to go to a nursing home, and I don’t blame her,” Sally said of her mother.

“She shouldn’t have to. She deserves to be able to live in her own house,” said Linda Trower, the secretary of the NPU-A board.

Ruth Haas has lived in that house since 1965. Many of her neighbors also have been there for decades, but Sally said there also has been a continual renewal as new families have moved in. Newcomers and old-timers alike look after Ruth, who Sally said has “become like the matriarch of the neighborhood.”

So the neighborhood took it personally after the recent break-in. “I’ve been here so long. Everyone knows me, and I have been good to them, I hope,” Ruth said. “It was quite a shock to them.”

“The Haas family have been great neighbors. They’re very well known and liked and looked after,” one woman told the NPU board. “This is just a very small showing of the neighborhood support for the family.”

The neighbors bring Ruth’s newspapers from the foot of the driveway to the house. They haul her recycling out to the curb. They make sure she gets to community gatherings such as a recent Halloween party and offer any other assistance she needs.

“These are her wonderful neighbors who always come to her support whenever we need them,” Sally said of the crowd at the NPU meeting.

Not that Ruth needs much. The former Navy nurse in good health, gets around well and has her children close by. She not only takes care of herself, but also looks after Snowman, a neighbor’s cat who spends much of his time cuddling with Ruth.

And she bakes those pies for everyone.