After four months of study, the Glendale Planning Commission voted 3 to 2 this week to recommend that the city adopt an ordinance permitting construction of walls and fences in the front yards of homes.
The ordinance would replace a 64-year-old law that, in general, prohibits any fence or wall within 25 feet of a front property line. Glendale has the toughest municipal fence restrictions in the county.
Although the city has granted variances permitting some front-yard walls for public safety, hundreds of residents have ignored the rules for years, officials said. Most walls and fences in front yards in the city were built illegally, they say.
More than 50 residents have been ordered to remove illegal walls since the city began a crackdown two years ago. But dozens of residents protested and the Glendale City Council in February called for a study of the issue.
After a series of public hearings, the planning commission Monday proposed the ordinance to permit fences and walls in front yards.
James Glazer, a city planner, said the ordinance would simplify procedures for building walls and fences legally, but that the new rules are not intended to encourage widespread construction of front-yard fences.
Glazer said the proposed ordinance "seems like an important issue. But, in reality, it is not intended that it be used that much." Officials said the criteria in the ordinance could be used to determine which existing fences should be legalized.
The proposed ordinance would also establish a series of controls on fences and walls. It would require, for instance, that the fences be set back at least three feet from the property line, as well as restrict the height of walls and the type of material permitted.
Solid walls would be permitted up to two feet high. Wall and fence combinations could be built up to five feet high, provided the upper three feet of the fence allows a public view of the yard, such as the combination of brick pillars and wrought iron.
Fences could be prohibited altogether in some neighborhoods at the discretion of the planning director, although property owners could appeal the decision to the planning commission and the City Council.
The proposed ordinance makes no reference to the hundreds of illegal fences and walls in the city. Planning commissioners on Monday unanimously removed a grandfather clause that would have legalized existing structures found to be "not detrimental to the surrounding neighborhood's existing improvements."
Several commissioners said granting amnesty to those who violated the law would be unfair to other residents who would have liked to have built fences but who obeyed the law.
Without the grandfather clause, the city can force homeowners to remove the illegal structures. However, city officials said so many of them have been in place so long that the city lacks the manpower to enforce the rules.
In recent years, the city has ordered removal of illegal walls and fences only when neighbors complained or when city inspectors discovered newly built illegal structures. Because the rules were being reconsidered, however, the city attorney's office halted enforcement earlier this year.
Officials said many structures are so old that the city has no records to determine if they were built legally or not.
The wall surrounding the historic Homeland mansion at 1405 Mountain St. was built in 1927. Even walls on some city-owned property, such as the one at the historic Casa Adobe de San Rafael, apparently do not meet the city's regulations.
The City Council will have to hold another public hearing on the issue before it decides whether to adopt the proposed rules.
The two commission members who opposed the ordinance, Chairman Lloyd Boucher and Gerald Briggs, argued that the city lacks the staff to enforce fence rules. "We are still going to have the same amount of people building illegal fences whether we have this ordinance or not," Boucher said.
However, Commissioner Duane DeCroupet voiced the opinion of the majority when he said an ordinance setting strict guidelines on the types of walls and fences permitted "is better than an unenforceable rule" banning fences altogether.
Law Adopted in 1922
The existing law, adopted in 1922, was designed to preserve front yards as open space with vast expanses of green lawns. Many residents, as well as the Glendale Beautification Council, have said they prefer the older law.
"The encroachment of fences into front yards is an encroachment on our quality of life," said Robert Dunlap of Glendale, who urged the commission Monday to scrap the proposed ordinance. "We have a problem here."
Under existing rules, a front-yard wall is permitted only if a property owner obtains a variance, a difficult, costly and time-consuming process that some critics say discriminates against the poor. Several residents said they spent $1,000 or more just to obtain city permission to build a wall in their front yard.
If the ordinance proposed this week is adopted, the city's law would still be one of the most stringent in the country because the height and building materials would be strictly limited.
The traditional white-picket fence, for instance, would be prohibited because the ordinance does not allow the use of wood or any other material considered to be non-durable. Nor could chain-link fencing be used in a front yard, as city officials consider it to be unattractive.