Higher Fences Make Good Neighbors
Someone mentioned to me a few weeks ago that fences in the city of Los Angeles can legally be 8 feet tall.
Say what? When did this happen?
For as long as I can remember, fences could be only 6 feet tall. That’s how high I built mine, even though I wished it could have been taller; that extra 2 feet would have given the garden a better sense of enclosure and a lot more privacy. And the tops of the neighbors’ tool sheds would have disappeared.
According to the city’s building and zoning departments, the rules changed about 10 years ago. Landscape designer Christine Rosmini said she was surprised that this change from 6 to 8 feet “wasn’t front page news” at the time.
“For years, everyone wanted a taller fence, but we would run up against this wall that said 6 feet and no higher,” she said. Apparently, city officials finally agreed that 8 feet was a more reasonable height in a crowded city, where houses seem to be getting bigger and taller and gardens smaller and smaller.
This new height limit is for the city of Los Angeles; to see what the limit is in your town, call the local building department.
Fences are an important part of California gardens, providing both the privacy of which we are so fond and the background against which the garden is seen. In other parts of the country, fences are not considered so important. Many neighborhoods don’t even have fences.
But residents in many other climes don’t spend as much time outdoors as we do, and properties tend to be larger. In this climate, gardens are lived-in outdoor rooms, and fences are the walls.
Especially on smaller lots, fences are also the backdrop for the garden. There is seldom room for trees and big shrubs, the ideal leafy green background for a garden, so a fence must do.
When I built my wood fence of rough Douglas fir, which I let weather into a natural gray, it made a huge difference in the garden, hiding the neighbors’ rusted tool sheds and several ugly old block walls and focusing attention on the flowers.
Six feet was the legal height then. If you wanted a taller fence, you added what was called a “cheater top,” usually a 2-foot-tall panel of lattice that could be removed if you got busted by the building department and put back up as soon as no one was looking.
Now, on “non-hillside” properties in the city of Los Angeles, fences can legally be 8 feet high in the backyard and on the sides behind the legal setback from the street (usually the front of your house). In front, they can be only 3 1/2 feet tall.
This applies only to lots wider than 40 feet, and don’t assume that because your lot is flat, it is what the city calls “non-hillside.” In sloping areas, the building pad may have been graded flat, but the city still considers that hillside, and different rules apply. The city has a handout that explains the rules. It also explains how to figure this out for a corner lot, where sides and backyards get confused.
Although you are legally allowed to build an 8-foot fence, Rosmini recommends that the top 18 inches be see-through lattice or something similar, “so it feels less like a prison.” A solid 8-foot fence is rather imposing and seldom necessary, in her opinion.
Most of the fence can be solid, but making the top airy not only keeps it from feeling so tall but lets the wind whistle through while giving you some privacy screening and a taller backdrop for the garden.
Rosmini has designed many elegant gardens with fences that have appeared in various publications. A vine fancier, she usually grows flowering vines on top of fences, though she stays away from heavy vines like wisteria and bougainvillea.
During the fierce January windstorms, a neighbor of mine lost his wood fence, partly because of the heavy bougainvillea growing along the top.
One of Rosmini’s favorite designs uses posts that are 8 feet above ground (with 3 feet buried), vertical boards on the bottom 7 feet and a railing of paired horizontal 2-by-6s on top. She grows vines along the railings.
Her favorite vines for fences include jasmine (which make a “wall of perfume”) and trumpet vines. The various trumpet vines usually bloom only when they are lying on top of something, like a roof, so the top of a fence is a perfect place for them.
Taller fences need more support. Contractors will tell you that a 6-foot wood fence should have its posts buried 2 feet into the ground, but posts for an 8-foot fence should be buried 3 feet deep. Most use 4-by-4-inch lumber.
Wood fences do not require permits in Los Angeles but, as a result of the 1994 Northridge earthquake, masonry fences and walls do.
During that earthquake, one neighbor’s concrete block fence fell flat on its face, crushing the garden underneath, because it was built on too small a footing. Now, concrete block and other masonry fences need a permit if they are taller than 3 1/2 feet, and engineering is required if they are taller than 6 feet. A footing as wide as 3 feet may be required.
Wood fences also have an Achilles’ heel--where they touch the ground. I followed standard procedure when I built my fence, surrounding the redwood posts with concrete, but after 12 years in the ground, they are just about rotten through.
On a new picket fence in the frontyard, I used pressure-treated wood for posts, which should last longer. The posts have been treated, under high pressure, with chemicals that resist rotting organisms. You’ll find two kinds--one that is stained green by the process and one that keeps its natural color, sold as Sunwood.
I’m probably going to have to rebuild the fence in back, and this time I’m determined to find a way to keep it from rotting so quickly.
And it might end up a little higher, now that it’s legal.
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