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Bound by a fence ordinance

Your white picket fence may look perfect, but it may have to come down if it doesn't meet the county's specific building guidelines.

By TIM GRANT

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 25, 1998


CARROLLWOOD -- A drive down Ehrlich Road offers a broad sampling of the many ways fences influence the suburban landscape.

Chain-link and wooden stockade fences surround three child-care businesses on the street, while larger subdivisions opt for wrought iron, concrete masonry or the latest vinyl. Just east of the Veterans Expressway, large wire mesh topped with a string of barbed wire runs along weathered wooden posts, marking off a cow pasture.

To the casual observer, a fence may be just a fence, but it's hardly that simple, according to Hillsborough County's land use code. You don't just put one up; aside from subdivision deed restrictions, there are county laws concerning where, what type and how high a person can build a fence on their property.

It's not uncommon, officials say, for residents to put up a yard fence not knowing they need a county permit. For some homeowners, what they didn't know about the fence ordinance has led to costly and frustrating experiences.

Code enforcement recently forced a Lutz woman to take down a chain-link fence because it was 5 feet tall, a foot too high. The same scenario and others as bad have occurred all over Hillsborough County, inspectors say.

A lot of the trouble related to fencing stems from the poorly drafted ordinance, one that is so confusing most people just don't get it. Even the county inspectors charged with enforcing it don't understand some parts.

"We read the code and we try to interpret it the best we can," said Henry Stobaugh, the county's chief mechanical inspector. "Zoning (related issues are) not our forte."

Between 1,200 and 1,500 fence permits are applied for in Hillsborough County each year, a number officials concede is merely a fraction of the actual fences being built. Although the fence ordinance is part of the land development code, which often focuses on zoning, the county assigned the task of fence inspections to mechanical workers with little background in zoning.

The fact is, so many illegal fences have passed inspections and received permits that officials are reconsidering the whole ordinance. In the next round of amendments to the county's land use code, the county may follow the city of Tampa's lead and stop requiring permits for fences altogether.

It won't mean anything goes. Property owners would save the $35 permit fee but still be held to standards set forth in a modified fence ordinance, hopefully, one they can understand.

Instead of issuing a permit, the county would provide information, written in layman's terms, about how to make a fence comply with the land use code.

"We're better off giving citizens good easily readable information," said Gary Pailthorpe, county construction manager. "It's my feeling that most people don't want to violate the law if they know what it is."

So far, however, officials haven't figured out just how to get that information to do-it-yourself fencers, if they no longer have to apply for a permit.

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While fences provide privacy or security or both to those on the inside, they rarely inspire compliments from those on the outside. And despite poet Robert Frost's famous observation that, "Good fences make good neighbors," they actually are a common source of suburban dispute.

Stobaugh said virtually all fence violation complaints his office receives arise from neighbors. In many cases, he said, an ongoing feud spurs the installation of a fence in the first place.

"If people would just get along, you probably wouldn't see as many fences," Stobaugh said.

One example of an improperly permitted fence being reported by a neighbor involves two sisters who built an 8-foot stockade wall around property they own on Lynn Turner Road.

Kathy and Fatemah Coleman have been told they must either trim their 8-foot fence down to 6 feet or seek a variance. Otherwise, they'll be subject to daily fines each day the fence is in violation.

The land use code prohibits 8-foot fences in residential areas unless they serve as a buffer for a main road. The problem is the county gave the Colemans a permit and they don't feel they should have to destroy their fence.

"We're not going to take it down," Kathy Coleman has said.

Coleman said it cost $5,000 to build the fence. Director of Development Services Burt Folce said the Colemans may have a civil case since the county's error could cost them money, but he must enforce the ordinance.

Folce said he would support waiving the Colemans' filing fees if they seek a variance. The Colemans have not said whether they will.

One reason the fence ordinance has not worked out well is its own language. Another is the lack of training for inspectors charged with enforcing that ordinance.

When the ordinance was adopted in 1987, the responsibility of inspecting fences was assigned to the county's mechanical workers, the same men and women who repair air conditioners and approve restaurant equipment.

"Percentage-wise, I think we do a good job, but mistakes are happening," Stobaugh said of his inspectors. "It could be not enough emphasis is put on fences. It could be the workload. I don't know."

Once a suspected violation is reported by the public, the case is handled by county code enforcement.

Part of the changes being considered would take mechanical inspectors out of the fence approval picture and turn over all fence inspection to code enforcement.

Chief code enforcement officer Don Shea opposes the idea.

"I'm not equipped to do all the fence inspections. Right now, I get all the problem fence complaints and we don't need anymore," Shea said. "We don't have the resources to do anymore. My people are pushed to the limit."

Shea said fence contractors are not bonded by the county and by dropping the permit requirements, contractors would operate solely on an honor system.

Fencing contractors, not surprisingly, are in favor of dropping the permitting process.

"It's just another level of bureaucracy," said Terry Rodman of Rodman Fence. "I think the county should follow the way the city does it. We should go through the process to eliminate it."

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The idea of marking off one's boundaries may be older than civilization. One explanation for landowners' fondness for fences could be their need to control their environment, said University of South Florida psychology professor William Sacco.

"It could be having a boundary or a fence may help them feel they have a greater sense of control over their environment," Sacco said. "People need control. When they are not in control they tend to feel greater distress."

For Carlos and Lilly Buckley, the chain-link fence around their home on Four Oaks Drive, makes them feel safer in their home.

"I think it's better if you've got a fence, especially with children," Mrs. Buckley said. "I think it looks better even."

Outside of a chain, Larry Brown said his fence is the only way to keep his dog contained in his Four Oaks yard.

If you've got a dog running around the neighborhood while you're at work, it'll make people think twice," he said. "A lot of people don't want to deal with dogs."

Brown's fence is only 4 feet high, but he thinks there shouldn't be any regulations on fences up to 6 feet, except on corner lots because high fences limit drivers' vision.

In general, Hillsborough County allows a maximum height of 4 feet in front yards and 6 feet along side and back yards.

The corner lot rules are more complicated and get many residents on the wrong side of the fence ordinance.

"For corner lots," it reads, "fences up to 6 feet in height shall be permitted within one front yard, which functions as a side yard, provided the fence is located no more than 10 feet into the required front yard as measured from the rear line of the front yard......."

Pailthorpe said that, in plain English, that means a 6-foot fence in a side yard that acts as a front yard can only intrude 10 feet into the yard. The perimeter fence on a corner lot can still be only 4 feet high.

"They wrote this code for visibility reasons," Pailthorpe said. "When people fence a corner lot, they don't want to run the fence in the middle of the property. More people get in trouble with that aspect than any other."

Permit applicants must submit a drawing or plot plan. Sometimes they get approved for a 6-foot perimeter fence because the application doesn't indicate the property is a corner lot.

In agricultural areas, it's even harder to enforce the fence ordinance. Because of the size and shape of some properties it's harder to determine where front yard boundaries begin and end.

Stobaugh cites one instance of a woman in rural Lutz neighborhood who was forced to remove a 5-foot chain-link fence. It wasn't an eyesore and it was only 1 foot higher than code. She argued that the extra foot prevented her dog from jumping out.

But rules are rules. A neighbor complained, the case went to a variance hearing and she was forced to tear down the fence she built.

"She had to cut off her nose to spite her face," Stobaugh said. "She lost all the way around just so her dog could have a little more running room."

Homeowners can seek a variance on anything that varies from the code before or after the fact, but Stobaugh said the odds are stacked against them.

"From what I've seen over the years variances are rarely granted. I tell people that's their option, but I hate to see them spend money to file for a variance and lose.

"When that happens they end up paying for the permit, the fence, the variance and fence removal," Stobaugh said.

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