City Seeks to Mend Its Fences : Glendale Law Would Be Strict Even if Changed

Times Staff Writer

The little cottage surrounded by a white picket fence is the stereotypical American dream home. But the fence is illegal in Glendale, where regulations governing walls and fences are the toughest of any city in the county.

The regulations, however, have been widely ignored throughout the city.

Officials estimate that hundreds of walls and fences have been built in violation of a 64-year-old law that, in general, prohibits any walls and fences within 25 feet of front property lines. Even some walls on city-owned property, such as the one at the historic Casa Adobe de San Rafael, apparently do not meet regulations.

In a report to the City Council this month, city planners said, "It is suspected that many people in Glendale build low fences illegally simply because they assume that Glendale's laws are like most other cities in the area and because no building permit is required for a fence or non-retaining wall lower than six feet in height."

Crackdown Protested

A crackdown by the city on illegal walls and fences, begun two years ago, set off a barrage of complaints from residents who have been ordered to remove them. The outcry prompted the council in February to call for a study of the law.

But, even under new rules proposed by the planning and zoning staffs, Glendale's fence controls would be the toughest in Los Angeles County, city officials said. The white picket fence--and anything else made of "non-durable" materials like wood--still would be verboten.

Solid walls in front yards would be permitted only in some areas, could not be higher than three feet, would have to be at least three feet from the property line or sidewalk and would have to be be fronted with landscaping. Open fences, such as those made of wrought iron, could be up to five feet high but would also have to be set back from the sidewalk.

No walls or fences would be permitted in some areas, such as neighborhoods marked by open expanses of lawns. Chain-link fences in front yards would remain illegal.

'Mark of Quality'

John McKenna, the city's zoning administrator, said the proposed rules are designed to preserve as much open space as possible in front yards, which he describes as "a mark of quality."

A Glendale Zoning Department survey of more than eight other cities, including Burbank, Pasadena, San Marino and Beverly Hills, found that all permit more extensive construction of fences and walls in front yards than Glendale does.

McKenna acknowledges that the proposal is bound to spark controversy. He said many people assume an "automatic right" to build fences or walls around their property.

That has gotten some people in trouble.

In 1984, Rajender Chawla built a $3,500 side wall on the Bruce Street property line of his corner lot on Kenneth Road, only to have the city order him to remove it. Chawla appealed to the city to keep the wall and sought permission to build a low wall in his front yard, which would be like many other walls fronting large homes in the prestigious neighborhood.

City zoning and planning officials denied Chawla's request, saying he would suffer no hardship if the law were strictly enforced. Councilman John F. Day then presented the issue to the council, which denied Chawla's request but agreed to study the regulations.

Proposed changes will be brought before the Planning Commission May 6 and the council May 27.

More than 50 residents have been ordered to remove walls or fences that city officials say were built illegally.

Gary Brown, a pipe fitter who has lived in his Verdugo Road home 10 years, said the city has ordered him to modify the three-foot-high concrete block wall he built several years ago.

Concrete Strip

Brown said that, before he built the wall, he was told by a former city official that it would be legal. Now, he said, he has been ordered to remove a narrow concrete strip that covers the space between the wall and the sidewalk and to landscape the foot-wide strip to camouflage the wall. "I paid my taxes to a guy who misinformed me," Brown said. "Now its my fault."

William Visco said he has been ordered to remove a wrought-iron fence he built in front of his Vine Street home several years ago. He said the fence cost less than $400 to build and he has spent $625 so far appealing the city order.

Because the law may soon be changed, the city attorney's office has temporarily postponed enforcement of the fence regulations, said Assistant City Atty. Scott Howard.

The proposed new standards would permit walls built of brick, decorative block, Slumpstone or stucco. It would allow wrought-iron or aluminum fences. Wood, plastic and other non-durable materials would be prohibited, along with chain link. McKenna said "non-durable" materials that deteriorate are an eyesore.

Hidden Hills Law

In contrast, the exclusive little city of Hidden Hills, at the western end of the San Fernando Valley, is noted for its streets lined with three-rail, white wooden fences. In fact, such fences are a city requirement.

Like picket fences, rail fences would be outlawed in Glendale under the proposed changes.

The proposed guidelines have been used by the city for several years in granting variances to residents who want to build front-yard fences. But variances are expensive, with the application process costing $325 to more than $900, depending on how many times a request is turned down, then appealed. The process also is time-consuming, taking up to 90 days because of advertising requirements and scheduling for public hearings, McKenna said.

Some residents complain that the strict fence law is discriminatory.

Costly Walls

John Salvino, a stockbroker who bought a new canyon view home 18 months ago, battled City Hall for months before he won permission to build elaborate brick and masonry walls and planters in his front yard. Salvino says he was embittered by the experience, which cost him almost $1,000 in fees to the city.

"The law is really unfair," said Salvino. "If you're rich, you can fight. But, if you are poor, you just don't get a fence."

Salvino said he also objects to the city telling property owners what types of materials can be used for fencing. "If you are a little guy who can only afford to put in chain link, you should have the same right to protect your property and your family as the next guy," Salvino said.

McKenna said the law is strict because many residents prefer neighborhoods uncluttered with fences and walls. The 1922 law was adopted in an era when there was a nationwide trend toward ridding neighborhoods of unsightly and deteriorated fences, such as picket fences with peeling paint and missing pickets, he said.

Support for Law

Many residents like Glendale's strict codes.

George Pacolt, a local real estate broker who moved to Glendale from Pennsylvania in 1940, frequently reports illegal walls and fences to city officials. "Somebody has to fight these things," Pacolt said. "I came from a town that didn't have fence laws. It was a real dilapidated town. We have a beautiful city and it should be kept that way."

Councilman Jerold F. Milner argues that front-yard fences may encourage homeowners to disregard the neighborhood outside their walls.

Because fences and walls are so easy to build, McKenna said, "they often appear overnight" and are not noticed by the few city staff members responsible for monitoring construction. Unless neighbors complain to the city about construction, "there is a good chance the violation will go unreported," he said.

Lack of Records

He said strict enforcement of the law "would require substantial additional staffing and would undoubtedly arouse controversy as to the necessity for such an emphasis on enforcement." Besides, many structures are so old that the city has no record of whether permission was given to build them, as is the case with the wrought-iron fence and wall surrounding the historic "Homeland" mansion, built in 1927 at 1405 Mountain St.

City officials said there was little enforcement of the fence law until the last decade or so, when city staff members began issuing notices of violation. But that was halted by former City Manager Hugh McKinley because he thought that such enforcement cast city workers "in an unfavorable light," McKenna said.

When James Rez became city manager two years ago, he asked staff members to again enforce the rules. "I felt that, if the law is on the books, we ought to be enforcing it," Rez said. "If it is wrong or unenforceable, then we ought to deal with that problem. But I don't believe we ought to just ignore a law that has a significant effect on the community."

Discriminatory 'by Nature'

Rez said fence regulations "like the whole zoning and variance process, are, by nature, discriminatory. It's a matter of what kind of damage a government does or does not want done to its residential area."

He also noted, "In any area of aesthetics, one person's junk is another person's delight."

While driving around the city this week, Rez said, he noticed a number of "quite attractive fences on huge, irregular lots with massive homes. That's class." But chain-link fences in front yards and other unattractive fences could be "a disaster to a community," he said.

"Fences do present a problem. There are fences. And then, there are fences."

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