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Good Fences Make Good Neighbors - or Do They?
January 24, 2003

A major project underway in the Planning Department is reviewing the current restrictions on fences for residential properties. The entire content of the current ordinance section on fencing, 15.04.810.033, is copied at the end of this narrative.

Currently, residential front yard fences are limited to 42 inches in height and can be solid or open, constructed of virtually anything. No building permit or discretionary review is required. The only exception is when a property owner obtains a variance from the Planning Commission (appealable to the City Council) based on compelling evidence that a higher fence is required to mitigate a crime problem supported by police records.

A problem has arisen in Richmond because a large number of residential front yard fences have been erected over the last few years that exceed the 42-inch height limit. A few owners, usually the subject of complaints by neighbors, have been advised of their fence violations by the City and have applied for after-the-fact variances. Typically, the Planning Commission has rejected the applications due to lack of proof of a pertinent "crime problem," but the City Council has been more lenient.

The Planning Department is currently in the process of researching and collecting public input on potential revisions of the residential fence provisions of the Zoning Ordinance. Some of the issues are as follows:

  • Fence Height: Is there a compelling reason to raise the maximum height of front yard fences? The Planning Department's current thinking is that the fence height limit should be raised to 60-inches to "reflect the changing taste of the community." The trend in certain neighborhoods in Richmond to erect higher fences, typically utilizing steel (popularly called "wrought iron") pickets, has been attributed to changing tastes reflecting cultural and ethnic backgrounds of owners and/or a defense against real or perceived criminal activity.

  • On the other hand, detractors believe that high front yard fences are out of scale with typical homes and create a "fortress mentality" that degrades the neighborhood, makes an implicit statement that "this neighborhood is unsafe,"  and actually depresses property values. A maximum fence height of 42-48-inches is a common standard in cities across America, although some cities allow fences as high as 60-inches. A fence height of 42-48-inches is high enough to physically restrain children and pets inside the yard and to provide both a physical and psychological barrier that deters most potential trespassers from entering private property. There is no credible evidence that a 60-inch fence is more effective in protecting property and people from crime than a 42-48-inch high fence. There are many things property owners and occupants can do individually, and as neighborhoods, to deter crime that are more effective than high fences. The cultural and ethnic arguments related to fence heights and design are interesting, but little hard evidence exists to support this theory, and it is obviously a prickly subject where many people fear to tread out of concern for being perceived as racist or insensitive.

  • Visibility: One thing all the experts agree on is that open fences are better crime deterrents than closed fences. One of the key principles of CPTED, which means Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design, is that fences should be open in order to avoid concealing criminal activity. Encouraging legitimate public activity (walking), lighting, and "eyes on the street" are all residential or urban design-related strategies that have proven effective in discouraging crime. A recent change in Richmond's Design Review Guidelines for new infill housing discourages what have become known as "snout houses" where virtually the entire front of a dwelling is taken up by a garage. Instead, designers are required to provide front windows so occupants will have "eyes on the street,' and front entrances and porches are encouraged to promote "neighborliness." See http://new.cpted.net/resources/reference.amt#articles and http://www.communitypolicing.org/publications/comlinks/cl16/cl16_kroek.htm for a number of articles on this subject.

  • Fencing Materials: The Planning Department's current thinking is that chain link fencing should be allowed, but only if it is covered by colored vinyl coating. others believe that chain link in any form should be forbidden.

  • Neigborhood Preferences: The incidence of high fences is not uniform throughout Richmond. generally, these are found in the older areas of Central Richmond, which are also the areas of highest incidence of crime. A "one size fits all" fence ordinance for Richmond may not be a good idea. Like street sweeping, there may be strong and divergent neighborhood preferences that should be taken into account.

  • Enforcement: There is a public perception that Richmond is no longer enforcing the current fence ordinance, although City officials insist, on the record, that the current restrictions are being enforced and no moratorium is in place. Part of the problem, however, is that fences do not require building permits if they are less than 60-inches. Without a permitting process, there is little incentive for fence contractors to comply with existing laws and no systematic mechanism for enforcement. Basically, any enforcement action under current practice comes only as a result of a neighbor's complaint. And even then, the possibility of abatement is remote, at best.

The Design Review Board, Planning Commission and City Council Public Safety/Public Services Standing Committee will continue to study the subject of residential front yard fences over the next 60 days. Meanwhile, public input should be directed to Tanya Boyce at the Planning Department, phone 510/620-6701 or email tanya_boyce@ci.richmond.ca.us. If you would like to have a PowerPoint presentation prepared by Tanya on the subject emailed to you, request it, and I will send it to you.


15.04.810.033 Fencing Standards. Fences and hedges in required yards shall be allowed as follows:

A. Front Yard. Fences and hedges up to 3.5 feet in height. (See also Section 15.04.810.034 for exceptions to fence height regulations.)

B. Interior Side Yard. Fences and hedges up to 6 feet in height will be allowed. Where the existing main buildings on two parcels which are abutting are at least 10 feet from the common side-to-side property line, then a fence or hedge of up to 8 feet in height will be allowed. When a residential side yard abuts a commercial or industrial property, then a fence or hedge up to 8 feet in height will be allowed.

C. Rear Yard. Where a rear yard abuts another rear yard, then 8 feet height is permitted. If rear yard abuts a side yard, then requirements under B above apply.

D. Corner Lots. Fences and hedges are hereby permitted to be constructed to a maximum height of three and one-half (31/2) feet in the required front yard and/or required street side yard within twenty-five (25) feet of the intersection of the street side property line and the front property line. Fences and hedges are hereby permitted to be constructed to a maximum height of six (6) feet in the required street side yard and its prolongation to the rear lot line starting at a point on the street side property line twenty-five (25) feet back from its intersection with the front property line.

E. Multiple Dwellings--Useable Open Space. The rear yard area of multiple dwellings and any side yard area included in useable open space shall be screened from view of adjacent parcels or from the street by a hedge, fence or wall, at least 4 feet high.

F. Multiple Dwellings--Garbage Cans. Garbage cans shall be screened from view from the public and from the rest of the common open space by any device which will make the garbage can areas neat and unobtrusive and so designed that the area may be cleaned properly. Examples are: sunken cans, an interior garbage room, a partial fence enclosure, or similar treatment.

G. Barbed Wire Fence. Barbed wire fence or use of barbed wire fencing materials is prohibited in any residential district or residentially developed lots, or on any lot adjacent to a residentially zoned district or residentially developed lots, pursuant to Section 11.88.020 of this Code.

15.04.810.034 Exceptions to Fence Height Regulations.

1. Upon a property owner's application, the Planning Commission may grant an exception to the fence height requirements imposed by this chapter. Such an exception shall be made only after a public hearing has been held and a determination made that:

(a) An exception is necessary to alleviate a crime problem affecting the subject property which is evidenced by police records; and

(b) Fencing satisfying this chapter's fence height limitations, or other protective devices, procedures or approaches.

(1) Do not sufficiently alleviate the crime problem, or

(2) Do not alleviate the crime problem as efficiently as an exception to the fence height requirements, or

(3) Are not economically feasible for the applicant.

2. Any exception granted under the above provisions may be rescinded at any time by the Planning Commission after a public hearing if the Commission determines that:

(a) The effect of the crime problem on the subject property has diminished for reasons other than the fence constructed pursuant to the exception granted herein; or

(b) The facts upon which a determination was made in subsection 14.a.(2)(b) above have changed; or

(c) The fence constructed pursuant to the exception granted herein has become a hazard or unsightly.

An owner who has been denied a fence height exception, or who has had such an exception rescinded, may appeal said denial or rescission to the City Council in accordance with the provisions of Section 15.04.980.