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  Mother of all Hearings Slated to Review Fence Heights
November 2, 2003

For only the second time ever, a Richmond City Council meeting will be held in the Richmond Memorial Convention Center Auditorium to accommodate the hundreds of people expected to show up to protest any restrictions on front yard fence heights. The last time the auditorium had to be used was in 1994 when Chevron mustered hundreds of vendors, employees and community organizations who were recipients of its largesse, to appeal the conditional use permit conditions imposed by the Richmond Planning Commission for the project that ended up putting MTBE in California’s groundwater supply.

Since 1949, the City of Richmond, in its Zoning Ordinance, has had a 3 ½ foot height limit on front yard fences. This is consistent with virtually every other city in the U.S., where front yard fence heights are typically restricted within a range of 3 to 4 feet. Within Richmond’s Zoning Ordinance is a provision for obtaining Planning Commission approval of higher fences when a crime problem can be documented. Most cities also have procedures that require a variance or conditional use permit for higher fences.

The specific reasons for front yard fence height restrictions are surprisingly obscure for such a universal component of American zoning ordinances, but it appears to be rooted in an effort to provide a reasonable level of security and privacy for homeowners while at the same time preserving a neighborhood aesthetic that has become a uniquely American tradition. The Sunnyvale ordinance, for example, states, “When high fences are built next to sidewalks, the neighborhood begins to look walled-in and detracts from the appearance and quality of the community.” There are also documented concerns with sight lines and safety at corner lots involving street intersections.

The current problem arose because the City’s Planning Department has never aggressively or proactively enforced the current fence height restriction. Richmond has 20,336 single family detached dwellings and another 7,644 units in duplex, triplex and fourplex buildings. Staff sampled 4,878 residential parcels in the Iron Triangle, Cortez-Stege, Belding Woods and Coronado and found 838 noncompliant front yard fences constituting 17% of all parcels. Then they extrapolated this over the entire city to project 4,080 noncompliant fences. Unfortunately, the methodology is flawed. Noncompliant high fences have been built mostly in the City’s southwest neighborhoods of the Iron Triangle, Belding Woods, Coronado, Santa Fe and Cortez-Stege. These same neighborhoods also happen to have relatively high crime rates, and they have a growing Latino population with cultural traditions that perceive the aesthetic and function front yards differently from the Richmond population of just a few years ago. The Latino component of the Richmond populace has increased more than two-fold over the last decade to 26.5% of the City’s residents.

Fences of any kind, however, are rare in the rest of Richmond, and illegally high fences are rarer still. My guess is that the total of noncompliant fences is more like somewhere between 1,000 and less than 2,000, constituting 5% to 10%, at most, of total residential units.

After ignoring the situation for decades, the Planning Department decided to come to grips with it this year. Following a number of meetings and various outreach efforts, the Planning Department obtained the following reactions:

  • The Richmond Neighborhood Coordinating Council (as a body) voted to keep the fence height at 3 ½ feet.
  • The majority of Richmond’s neighborhoods (70%) voted separately to keep the 3 ½ front yard fence height limit.
  • Marina Bay, in which all homes are located in gated communities with at least 5 foot high (legal) perimeter fences, voted for a 5 foot fence height. Almost half the City Council lives in Marina Bay.
  • East Richmond and Carriage Hills, which, interestingly, have few existing fences and low crime rates voted for 5 foot fence heights.
  • In a separate poll, the Iron Triangle voted for a 5 foot fence height.
  • A special Spanish language survey found support for a 6 foot height limit.

The Planning Department staff recommendation originally was to raise the front yard fence height limit city-wide to 5 feet, but when they floated that to the Planning Commission and the City Council’s Public Safety and Public Services Committee, those bodies supported leaving the height at 3 ½ feet and finding some reasonable way to provide amnesty for existing non-conforming fences to recognize that the City has not enforced the ordinance for decades.

Then the fence hit the fan. Agitators began distributing leaflets to owners of illegally high fences warning them that they must cut their fences down, could be fined up to $1,000 a day and lose their homes to property liens. The Planning Department, which knew better, joined the fray, pouring gasoline on the fire by publishing their own leaflet on City letterhead with the same dire warnings. The result was that hundreds of high fence owners who probably have never before attended a City Council meeting showed up at the October 21 City Council meeting to protest what they perceived as a major threat to their property.

Overwhelmed by the onslaught, the City Council postponed the hearing to November 4 and moved it to the auditorium, where 750 seats will be provided for the anticipated crowd. The City Council is expected to take the first of two votes on an ordinance following the hearing. Meanwhile, high fence advocates continue to leaflet high fence owners to urge them to attend the November 4 meeting. The City has prepared 3,000 staff reports in Spanish and placed them at churches with predominantly Latino congregations.

The official Planning Department staff recommendation, which has to conform to that adopted by the Planning Commission, is to keep the front yard maximum fence height at 3 ½ feet. Unofficially, the Planning Department has been an aggressive advocate for raising the maximum fence height to 5 feet. Planning staff continues to defy the Planning Commission and recommend a 5 foot height limit in its latest report. The Planning Department, as it has done in the past, has tried to frighten the City Council into supporting its position by predicting draconian costs for implementing policies it does not support. In this case, they are predicting costs of over $500,000 with net costs of $44,792 for keeping the 3 ½ foot height limit.

In the latest staff report, Planning staff has finally, as the City Council Public Safety Committee directed, outlined a potential amnesty program in which all existing nonconforming fences will be registered and administratively approved after the fact unless they are dilapidated, exceed 6 feet in height, are view obscuring over 3 ½ feet or obscure street intersections.

It is clear that the City Council will hear from hundreds of people supporting changing the maximum front yard fence height to 5 or even 6 feet. Those who are proponents of lower fences should come out and be heard or it will be concluded that silence gives consent.

Based on extensive review of the matter, I am inclined to support something like the following:

  1. Require fence permits for all new fences so that the City can keep better control and records than in the past. Many cities require such permits. A modest fee would be assessed to cover 100% of the City’s costs. Include penalties for contractors that erect illegal fences.
  2. Raise the minimum front yard fence height city-wide to 4 feet. This is still within, but at the upper limit, of what cities across the U.S. have in their zoning ordinances. Sight lines would still have to be maintained at street intersections, where 3 ½ foot or low opacity fences would be required.
  3. Allow 5 foot fences with an administrative permit in “high-crime” areas, defined as crime reporting areas with total crime rates exceeding 20% of the City average. This is how some cities, such as Long Beach, handle the security issue in high crime neighborhoods. Such fences would be required to have an opacity of less than 20%.
  4. Provide systematic amnesty through a City-initiated registration program for existing fences between 3 ½ feet and 6 feet unless they are dilapidated, are view obscuring over 3 ½ feet or obscure street intersections. The sheer quantity of such fences in southwest Richmond makes any after the fact enforcement totally impractical. A modest fee would be assessed to cover 100% of the registration cost. For fences that would still be illegal under the revised ordinance, the amnesty permit would expire when the home is sold or after a certain number of years. Emeryville provides owners a one-time $5,000 grant to remove nonconforming fences.
  5. In the future, any kind of wire or chain link fencing would not be allowed. Fences could be constructed of wood, masonry, decorative concrete or metal.
  6. Metal or wood fencing would have to be painted.
  7. Fencing shall be constructed in a manner that allows access by utility companies and legitimate visitors such as postal workers and public safety employees doing investigations and inspections. One method would be a doorbell outside the gate.


Seeking good fences made for bad blood


Posted on Mon, Nov. 03, 2003

When the City Council decided to revisit its fence-height ordinance, it tapped into simmering tensions between Latino newcomers and longtime residents, which became apparent when hundreds stormed City Hall to voice their discontent at a recent meeting.

City rules mandating front yard fences be no taller than 31/2 feet have been on the books for years.

But because enforcement was so uneven, the City Council asked the Planning Department to come up with three options governing front gates that could realistically be followed and enforced.

On Tuesday, the council will take up the issue again, this time in the Richmond Civic Auditorium to accommodate an expected overflow crowd.

Mayor Irma Anderson pulled the item from the Oct. 21 agenda after hundreds amassed in the council chambers, lobby and plaza. Organizers say more than 1,200 turned out that night, many prompted by Spanish and English fliers distributed to homes and churches by former Councilman John Marquez and the Richmond planning department.

Anderson blasted Marquez for whipping up a fervor in the Latino community. The fliers say the proposed ordinance will require homeowners with tall fences to cut them back to a legal height and empower the city to penalize them to the tune of $250 to $1,000 a day, seizing the homes of those who do not pay their fines.

"The council never voted on that," Anderson said. "We never voted that fences should be torn down. I asked the Planning Department to give us three options and said we would vote on them, and we have not done that yet. I can't see us just voting on one option."

Most of the protesters who showed up to voice their outrage over the limitations say they have been threatened by escalating crime in their neighborhoods, mainly in the Iron Triangle.

"The council was upset that I said people could lose their homes, but it says so right in the staff report," said former Councilman John Marquez, who called the ordinance "Draconian."

Planning Director Barry Cromartie said planners studied the issue for a year then drafted an ordinance with three options:

• set fence heights at five feet, with room for height exemptions;

• allow fences of up to six feet, but grant no exemptions; and

• keep the current maximum of 31/2 feet.

The city has "a long history of not enforcing" its ordinance, Cromartie said. A moratorium on citing violators was put in place last year.

"Some people are playing to hysteria, putting their own spin on this," he said. "It's not always accurate information. I don't think anyone on the staff and the council would think of seizing anyone's home over a fence."

However, the council has come under fire for failing to enforce the codes. Virtually every homeowner cited for an illegal fence has appealed to the council -- and been vindicated.

"Because it hasn't been enforced, people may think it's OK," Cromartie said. "To the council, I say please, whatever you pass, whether three or six, be prepared to have the political will to enforce it, or you send mixed signals to the community."

Councilman Tom Butt spent the weekend after the first meeting driving through neighborhoods where tall fences abound and speaking to homeowners.

"I'm still really wrestling with this," he said. "It costs $12,000 to $15,000 to put one of these things up. A typical story a guy told me is they stole his kids' bicycles, then came back and stole his tools. So he put a fence up.

"If you ask me, raising it to four feet is a no-brainer," Butt said. "Anything shorter just doesn't perform any function."


Residents rally to legalize higher fences

Posted on Wed, Nov. 05, 2003

Nearly 500 people flocked to a special City Council meeting at the Richmond Civic Auditorium to inveigh against an ordinance that restricts fence heights to 31/2 feet.

The City Council was expected to vote late Tuesday night on whether to keep or retool the ordinance, which has been in place for years, to allow taller front-yard fences many residents say they need to protect themselves from theft and intrusion.

"Do you know it takes a lot of money to put up a fence for security?" said Emmett Boone of Richmond. "They put a fence around the White House. Why can't I put up a fence?"

Even though the council made it clear early on that they supported planning director Barry Cromarti's recommendation to rework the ordinance, speaker after speaker castigated the council for, in the words of one man, "trying to take away our safety."

"When I go to sleep, I go to sleep with one eye closed and one eye open to protect my property," said Jose Olivaras.

The few speakers in favor of restricting the fence height to 31/2 feet were jeered and booed.

"I understand everyone's frustration," said Diane Hamilton. "But fences promote a ghetto-like mentality. I'm sorry, but it's a true statement."

Former councilman John Marquez beseeched the crowd to allow speakers to voice their thoughts without interruption, and thanked the city staff "for bringing forward some real options."

Throughout the city, homeowners have erected more than 4,000 fences, mostly of decorative wrought iron, according to planning department estimates.

The council was expected to reset the maximum height to five feet, with a blanket amnesty granted to taller fences unless they are taller than six feet, built from solid materials, or are dilapidated or dangerous.

In an October tour of Coronado, Cortez-Stege, Iron Triangle and Belding Woods neighborhoods, planning department workers counted 840 fences taller than the current law allows. Most were from five to eight feet tall.

An estimated 1,200 people turned out to debate the matter at a council meeting Oct. 21, many prompted by Spanish and English fliers distributed to homes and churches by Marquez and the Richmond planning department. The matter was postponed until Tuesday and moved to the auditorium to handle expected overflow crowds.

Mayor Irma Anderson blasted Marquez for whipping up rumors in the Latino community that the council supported keeping the limit to 31/2 feet, and would insist violators cut back their fences or be penalized to the tune of $1,000 a day.

Anderson said she had asked city planners to come up with three options for a realistic fence ordinance. Before they could vote on them, a group or individual called the "Richmond Citizens Council" began circulating petitions last week threatening to recall the entire council for ostensibly supporting the short-fence limit.

Opponents have said a street of high fences does not promote neighborly relations, and knuckles under to criminals instead of routing them from the area. In most cities in Contra Costa County, front-yard fences must be roughly 31/2 feet or less.


Richmond rethinks 6-foot fence vote


Posted on Thu, Nov. 06, 2003

Reach Rebecca Rosen Lum at 510-262-2713 or rrosenlum@cctimes.com

While the City Council supported late Tuesday night letting front yard fences extend to 6 feet in every city neighborhood, the issue looked different to some of them Wednesday.

With some 500 people in attendance and about 70 speaking on the issue, the council agreed to scuttle the city's decades-old 31/2-foot limit and said it would allow property owners to keep nearly every fence exceeding the previous standard.

Only fences that block visibility at intersections, are made of solid materials, or are dilapidated or dangerous would be forced to change.

The vote was 8-1 with Councilman Tom Butt opposed. He had proposed a 4-foot standard with 5- to 6-foot barriers permitted in high-crime neighborhoods, an idea the council rejected.

However, the ordinance change must come back to the council for a second and final vote perhaps Nov. 18.

And by late Wednesday, some council members were voicing regret about the vote.

"I think it was a mistake, that vote," said Councilman Richard Griffin, who, like others, fielded a storm of calls Wednesday from residents opposed to the fences, or to the characterization by many of Richmond as an out-of-control frontier of lawlessness.

Griffin plans to propose an amendment much like Butt's, with a 6-foot limit in the Iron Triangle, Coronado, Cortez-Stege and Belding Woods neighborhoods but keeping it at 31/2 feet in other areas.

"If we can tailor a program for street sweeping, why can't we do the same for fences?" he said. "Even if pressure played a role, it's up to us on the council to resist that pressure and to vote responsibly."

During the council discussion, heckling grew so boisterous Anderson considering delaying the vote.

Butt, who left before the meeting concluded, was saddened by the discussion.

"The city I heard described last night is not the city I have lived in for 30 years, nor is it the city I want to live in," he said. "I accept that the threat (residents) described is real and the need legitimate. I am deeply saddened that the only approach the City Council considered is to encourage residents, citywide, to draw further into themselves, give up on their neighborhoods, write off the police and adopt lifestyles that are more like the Middle Ages than modern America."

The city's 31/2-foot limit has been law since 1949, but officials routinely granted exemptions or didn't enforce the rules at all. As a result, more than 4,000 fences in the city exceeded the standard, according to planning department estimates.

Before listening to residents, Mayor Irma Anderson and council members made clear their intention to lift the 31/2-foot limit.

Yet many took aim at the council, anyway.

"So now you want to lower the fencing," Steve Usher said. "I personally will work feverishly to put you out of office. Please, please do not do this."

Some residents recounted horror stories, describing break-ins, traffic accidents, and vandalism that ended only when they erected tall fences. Others had not endured such run-ins, but said the high barriers gave them a sense of security.

"They have stolen my car, they have broken my door down, they have even stolen our clothes," resident Rigoberto Villas said.

One woman said she changed her mind about fences after a car plowed into the wall of her house.