If good fences make good neighbors, then what is to be said of all the fences that turned into rubble with the January earthquake?
That's a question that many neighbors are asking themselves as they deal with the task of rebuilding the many fences that were destroyed or damaged and are still in need of repair.
Who pays the bill is the focus of contentiousness by many not-so-neighborly neighbors throughout the San Fernando Valley and Ventura County.
The general rule about property line fences--also known as boundary fences, division fences or partition fences--is that they are co-owned by the neighbors using the fence, unless those neighbors agree otherwise.
Such a fence cannot be unilaterally removed and, when one of the properties is sold, the new owner acquires mutual ownership of the fence.
The mutual ownership of property line fences isn't absolute, however.
Covenants, conditions and restrictions (CC & Rs) established as part of planned-unit developments may address boundary fences specifically and apportion different building costs between owners. (You might already have a copy of CC & Rs in documents provided by your title company when you bought your home. Or you can look it up in the Hall of Records.) Other recorded documents may have something to say about the ownership of a boundary fence. And, some fences that aren't on the line dividing two properties may in fact be the responsibility of one neighbor versus another.
These are just the general rules. In the real world, arguments are inevitable.
"We've had a tremendous amount of calls on this issue" since the Northridge quake, reported Denise Binder, planning deputy in Los Angeles City Councilwoman Laura Chick's district office in Reseda. "These are very difficult problems and often very difficult to solve. Everyone gets all emotional because we can't help them."
The Los Angeles city attorney's office has been stepping in with some help through its Dispute Resolution Service. "We've been getting a lot of calls from neighbors regarding block walls or fences damaged or destroyed during the earthquake," said Ruth Kwan, supervising attorney in the consumer protection section of the city attorney's office.
A group of volunteer mediators is being made available to help neighbors settle their differences voluntarily. First, the mediators try to get the neighbors to cooperate by phone. If that fails, the neighbors are invited to mediate in downtown Los Angeles or in a satellite office in Reseda. "Our dispute resolution isn't based on law but on finding an equitable solution that will satisfy both parties," Kwan said. "There is no black-letter law. It comes down to a matter of common sense."
Common sense, of course, doesn't always prevail in disputes between neighbors, said Alan Kheel, partner at the Sherman Oaks law firm of Reznik & Reznik. His advice to homeowners with a felled fence is "get the fence up and argue about it later." If all attempts at compromise fail, Kheel said, it is feasible to take a neighbor to small claims court for up to $5,000 for their share of fence replacement or repair.
Even a win in court doesn't necessarily help you collect money from your neighbor, though, he said. "If your neighbor has no money, what are you going to do?"
There is very little case law in California related to the maintenance of boundary fences. Civil Code Section 841 does, however, state that so-called co-terminous owners are mutually bound equally to maintain the boundaries, monuments and fences between them.
And, a property owner who refuses to pay for his share of a property fence and then fences off the rest of the property is responsible to later pay the neighbor for half of the fence that wasn't paid for.
The only problem with this statute, say local attorneys, is what to do with fences that aren't really on a boundary line. In those cases, the owners have to just find a way to settle their differences.
"If the fence is on the property line, the cost is usually shared," said Dan Collins, vice president of DJ Fence & Masonry Inc. in Chatsworth. "Some neighbors get rowdy and testy, but most have been extremely friendly and workable with their neighbors," he said.
For a six-foot-high fence, Collins said he charges about $12 a linear foot for chain-link, $24 for wood, $39 for cinder-block and $44 for so-called Slumpstone or adobe brick.
Insurance companies, he said, are reimbursing most residents for half the cost of boundary fences unless the homeowner proves that the fence was all theirs to begin with.
Ty Cavanaugh, owner of Quality Fence Co. in South Gate, reports that business is booming. He did about $4 million in fence business last year and expects this year to be even more lucrative--thanks to the Jan. 17 earthquake.