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Fencing Out--or In--Check the Law

NEIGHBOR LAW: Fourth of six parts on the problems of living in close confines. Next week: When a neighbor isn't neighborly.

September 29, 1991|CORA JORDAN | Jordan is an attorney and the author of "Neighbor Law: Trees, Fences, Boundaries and Noise," published by Nolo Press, Berkeley, from which this article is adapted with permission. "Neighbor Law" is available in bookstores or by calling (800) 640-6656 in California or (800) 992-6656 elsewhere in the United States. and

City and county fence ordinances in most urban and suburban areas can be surprisingly strict and detailed. Most regulate height and location--and some also control the material used and even the appearance of a fence. Many cities require a building permit to construct a fence at all.

These fence regulations apply to all types of fences--any structure used as an enclosure or a barrier or a partition. Often, they include hedges and trees.

In reality, however, local fence laws are loosely enforced, if at all. Cities are not in the business of sending around fence inspection teams--and most localities contain lots of fence violations that no one has complained about. As long as nobody else minds and no one complains, a nonconforming fence may stand forever.

Also, what may have started out perfectly legal may later exceed the legal limits. For example, a nice little hedge may grow into a 15-foot natural wall. If both neighbors like it, nothing is ever said, and there it stands.

If someone does complain, the neighbor who is violating an ordinance will be given a written notification of the violation and asked to conform. If he or she doesn't, the city can fine the person and even sue to force compliance. A slight violation, however, is not usually enough to trigger help from the city or county authorities.

Some of the types of restrictions found in the local laws include the following:

Maximum heights. Almost all towns place height restrictions on fences. In residential areas, local rules commonly restrict artificial or constructed back-yard fences to a height of six feet. In front yards, the limit is often four feet.

General fence height restrictions may apply to natural fences--those of bushes or trees--if they meet the ordinance's general definition of fences. Whether trees and bushes are considered fences depends on the location of their trunks, the particular ordinance and whether or not they are actually used as a fence. When natural fences are singled out in the laws, the height restrictions commonly range from five to eight feet.

Setback requirements. Most local fence laws contain what is called a setback rule--requiring fences to be set back a certain distance from the street or sidewalk. This gives the city room to maintain its own property and prevents danger caused by fences blocking the view at a driveway or intersection.

Prohibited materials. Some towns prohibit the use of certain materials in building or maintaining a fence--for example, electrically charged or barbed wire. And even without such a specific law, if a fence is made of unsound material or so poorly constructed that it is an eyesore or a danger, it may be prohibited by a "blighted property" ordinance.

Appearance. Local laws usually do not dictate what a fence must look like. There are rare exceptions, such as in the community of Seaside, Fla. There, an extraordinary ordinance requires a white picket fence on each property.

But in most places, owners are free to choose how their fences look. Occasionally, an eccentric owner puts up such an ugly fence that the neighbors hope it's against the law because of its appearance. A hideous fence could reflect an intent to annoy a neighbor, and if it is useless to the owner, it may be an illegal "spite fence."

The appearance of a fence does matter in another situation--when it is not maintained and becomes a real eyesore, violating a blighted-property ordinance. A deteriorated fence falls into this category. A crumbling stone wall, a sagging chain-link fence or a broken or graffiti-covered board fence may all be blighted property, depending on the ordinance. A dilapidated fence may also violate an ordinance prohibiting an owner from allowing a dangerous condition to exist on his or her property.

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