Here's to picket fences in Los Angeles

Regarding "Changes to city's fence ordinance in the works," Aug.

13-14): of the 359 homeowners in my area of Los Angeles, 112 are

running afoul of the law in a deviously blatant way by committing the

heinous "fence offense." In other words, breaching Los Angeles

municipal code sections 12.21 and 12.22, which limit frontyard fence

and hedge height to a maximum 3 1/2 feet above grade. Now that's a

lot of criminal activity for one neighborhood.

With their pens and pads, my investigative team -- three

17-year-old, out-of-work baby sitters -- scoured my neighborhood in

search of scoundrels and found one very troublesome woman. This

74-year-old widow named Barbara gave them a suspicious story about

how her "charming wooden slats" were installed unknowingly by her

otherwise law-abiding husband in 1987. My detectives measured the

"offensive picket" at a full 4 feet, rather than the legal 3 1/2

above grade.

When pressed, Barbara confessed that she had just received a

letter from the Los Angeles City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo asking her to

"appear for a city attorney hearing to determine if a criminal

complaint should be issued against (her) ... for an alleged [fence]

violation."

"It's a stressful situation," Barbara said. "It makes me feel like

a felon. Shouldn't there be a statute of limitations on fences that

have been in place for so long?"

Fence snitches are on the rise, according to some local

representatives. Meddlesome neighbors or quality-of-life protectors,

depending upon one's perspective, protest fences by calling the

city's toll free number anonymously to tattle on their neighbors for

wrought-iron, chain link and hedge indiscretions. Barbara's picket

caught the attention of authorities when complainants tipped off the

Department of Building and Safety to another neighbor's fence. A

dozen families on the street received the ominous code violation

letter.

My investigative crew told me to grab my polygraph and

interrogation spotlight, and scurry to Barbara's home for a

"Guantanamo Bay-style probe. But when I arrived, I took pity on the

wide-eyed senior, hinting 'Have you ever seen Leonardo DiCaprio's

movie, 'Catch Me If You Can?'"

Of course, I would never advise Barbara to creep further into the

recesses of crime by snubbing Delgadillo and tossing the violation

notice in the trash. And I would hate for the fence fiasco to

culminate in a showdown at a dusty printing warehouse in France, all

on the taxpayers' dime.

But I wondered -- merely as a philosophical exercise -- what would

the city do if she were a no-show at the hearing? How would the city

react if Barbara faxed them a list of the other 111 high fences in our neighborhood, or better yet, the tens of thousands in L.A.?

Two things are certain: it would take a lot of out-of-work baby

sitters to compile the list, and it would start a revolution.

Homeowners would not be willing to dismantle fences that cost them

thousands of dollars to construct.

Whistle-blowing Barbara could then create a directory of every

property with any sort of code violation. In fact, we have one now:

it's called the phone book.

As a Realtor for the past 17 years, I have never sold a home that

complies with every Building and Safety rule. There are enclosed

patios and guest houses that are not "built to code"; there are water

heaters, roofs and air conditioners that have been installed without

permits. It can be illegal to park too many vehicles in the driveway

or store too many items in the garage.

Due to a number of break-ins in the area, Barbara wants to retain

her picket for security. Fence proponents tout other benefits, such

as increased privacy and the flexibility to transform front yards

into grassy play areas for kids and pets, especially when pools

swallow up the rear of a lot. Hill-adjacent properties as well as

those that have succumbed to expansion or mansionization may not have

room for a yard without enclosing the front.

Too many years have passed and too many fences have been built for

Los Angeles to attempt a perilous, impractical and costly u-turn back

to the "Leave it to Beaver" days, when neighborhoods had unobstructed

front lawns. One third of all home-owning Angelenos cannot and should

not be inputted into a "fence offender database."

The Barbaras of this city should not be frightened by official

notices, turned into scofflaws and labeled "casualties of the

process," as one fence snitch calls her.

The city could encourage residents to drape existing fences with

greenery to capture the pastoral quality of the yesteryear or require

them to contribute $100 annually to a neighborhood beautification

fund in return for the right to ignore the law.

The city could even change the law to accommodate higher fences

and mature hedges; after all, an owner has paid for her front yard,

so she should, within reason, be able to use it as she pleases.

The "fence" controversy has traveled beyond Los Angeles to the

California communities of Burbank, Santa Monica, Richmond, and

Glendale, where angry homeowners have flocked to city council

meetings -- often breaking attendance records -- to voice their

dissatisfaction with what they perceive to be arcane and restrictive

rules. The issue is likely to continue weaving its way across America

since most communities limit frontyard fence heights to 3 to 4 feet

while property owners routinely disregard the laws.

Barbara whispered in my ear: "Don't tell Mr. Delgadillo, but I

wish my fence were higher. Then I could take out my trash in my

nightie."

I nodded, "Why should a person have to get dressed just to walk

out her own front door?"

* CHARLOTTE LAWS is a Los Angeles resident.

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