WATERVLIET — When city commissioners on Tuesday took up the controversial question of restricting the size of pole barns on residential lots, they got an earful from local residents – on both sides of the issue.

After hearing from several citizens who addressed the special board meeting, commissioners voted on a preliminary proposal to tighten the zoning rules regarding “accessory buildings,” commonly known as pole barns.

The measure failed by a 3-2 vote, but the issue hasn’t gone away. Mayor David Brinker, who supports the idea of restrictions but voted against the measure put forward Tuesday, told attendees at the meeting “we’ll go back and do a little more homework.”

The pole barn question became a front-burner issue after Watervliet resident John LaRatta erected a 30-by-50-foot pole barn on his property. The building is unquestionably legal under the city’s existing zoning rules, but the scale and prominence of the 1,500-square-foot building sparked unhappiness among some residents. Early this month commissioners began considering new restrictions.

On Tuesday LaRatta took the floor to give an impassioned defense of his building. The fundamental question, he contended, is: “Who are we to say what people can or can’t do on their own property?”

That prompted Mayor Brinker to note mildly that the city does have the right to maintain standards. “You wouldn’t want some guy to come in with a bunch of junk cars” on his property, he suggested to LaRatta.

Robert Pelton, another resident, said accessory buildings should be no more than 1,000 square feet, and for cosmetic reasons should be required to “share exterior elements” with the owner’s residence. Resident Rick Rasmussen, noting that a standard two-car garage, at 24 feet on each side, is less than 600 square feet, suggested a limit of 900 square feet for accessory buildings.

If residents were divided in their opinions, so were the board members in attendance. Commissioner Bill Whitney bluntly agreed with LaRatta that “we shouldn’t be telling people what to do with their property.” And Commissioner Michael Bumstead said as long as buildings are maintained properly, the city should be wary about adding restrictions. “If I had the room and the money,” he added, “I’d put up a pole barn myself.”

But Commissioner Luke Strunk argued that restrictions make sense. As a community, he argued, “we want to be inclusive,” and that goal can include restricting owners from building structures so big they infringe on neighbor’s views.

Although Mayor Brinker had floated the idea of a new restriction of 1,200 square feet, Commissioner Jennifer Helms made a motion for a tighter limit of 1,000 square feet. Her proposal fell short, however, and the divisive issue seems likely to resurface at the commission’s upcoming meeting in early May.