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
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]
"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
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
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.