The fence at 8010 Winston Rd.

The fence at 8010 Winston Rd.

by Kevin Dicciani

They say good fences make good neighbors. What they failed to mention is that good fences can also make for a bad headache.

Just ask Gary Fescine and Lisa Digiacomo of 8010 Winston Rd. After moving to their new home a year ago, they replaced a 25-year-old fence that was deteriorating and beyond repair. They had a contractor install a 6-foot solid wood fence around the front and side of their property and were planning to finish off the other side when they received a notice and fine from the Department of Licenses and Inspections that said their fence violated the city’s zoning code. With more than 33 percent of the fence already in the ground, Fescine and Digiacomo filed for a variance to keep the fence as is, being that the two had already spent more than $10,000 on installation.

L&I refused their variance request for two reasons. Under the city’s zoning code, “in a residentially zoned district a fence located nearer to the lot line than the required building setback or the actual distance from the lot line shall be no more than 4 feet in height and no more than 50 percent opaque. Secondly, fences and walls over 4 feet and more than 50 percent opaque may not be installed within any sight triangle.”

This was news to Fescine and Digiacomo. When they moved to their home on Winston Rd., they asked the real estate agent if there would be any restrictions if they replaced the property’s already existing fence, which was also 6 feet in height, albeit transparent. Digiacomo said the real estate agent made no mention of the zoning code at the time of purchase.

Then, Fescine and Digiacomo discussed the fence with a contractor who also made no overt mention of any zoning code restrictions – although on the contract it is mentioned in small print that the owner is responsible for checking the building code.

“The fence vendor referenced that we check the building code,” Digiacomo said. “So we did check it, and it didn’t appear that we would be non-compliant.”

“We had no idea that the fence would also come under the zoning code,” Fescine said. “In the building code, it says clearly that we don’t need a permit for a wood fence.”

“There was no reference to the zoning code so we weren’t aware that would be a separate issue,” Digiacomo said.

Frustrated and confused, Fescine and Digiacomo brought their second variance to the Chestnut Hill Community Association’s Land Use, Planning and Zoning Committee on Sept. 4 in hopes of gaining their support against L&I’s ruling. They listed three main reasons behind their variance.

First, Fescine and Digiacomo stated financial hardship. They said reconstructing the $10,000 fence and replacing it, as well as making other alterations to the landscape, shrubbery and retaining wall, would cost upwards of $30,000.

Second, the two stated visual and auditory impairment. They stated that unusual traffic patterns necessitate a 100 percent opaque fence since their home is at a five-point intersection. On a Friday morning between 7 and 9, the couple conducted an informal traffic study and counted a total of 207 cars passing by, making an inordinate amount of noise. At night, they said, light leaks from headlights spill into their large front window and into their living room.

That large front window poses another issue – privacy. Fescine and Digiacomo said people passing by in front of their house and across the street at the park can see into their living room. The height of the fence gives them more privacy, they said.

In addition to traffic and privacy, the two also said that across the street is a staging area for municipal trash trucks. On trash days in the morning, workers park their cars and idle around the area before heading off in the trucks. At night the entire process is repeated again. If their fence was lower, Giacomo said, the trash trucks and the commotion would be visible from inside their home and from their front yard. They said the spot is also a staging area for school buses.

“This wasn’t a condition that we were aware of at the time of purchase,” Digiacomo said. “We feel the fence helps with that issue.”

Larry McEwen, co-chair of the CHCA’s Development Review Committee and LUPZ, said the staging of trash trucks is an issue for “everyone in that neighborhood.”

Third, Fescine and Digiacomo said that without the fence there is a possible deterioration in the value of their home. They spoke with an appraiser who personally felt the value of their home would drop, although there was no definite data to support that claim, Digiacomo said.

Fescine and Digiacomo had a petition with 61 signatures from nearby neighbors who support their fence and predicament. He said he received no complaints from anyone in the vicinity and that now it seems his home is being singled out by the city.

John Landis, DRC co-chair, said there are a number of other possibilities and variations Fescine and Digiacomo can do to meet the legal requirements for their fence – such as a lower fence with equal opacity, an alteration in the landscaping or planting hedges across the front of the property.

But Landis said he would not support the variance.

“I don’t have a problem with the opacity but more so its height.” Landis said. “In my personal view, the fence detracts from the attractiveness of the house. Your house would be much nicer presented – both for you and the neighborhood – if your fence was code-compliant.

“This really is a question, for me of whether the additional livability and cost hardship that you would clearly face is worth the fact that the neighborhood would be better off, and you as property owners would potentially be better off, with a more code-compliant fence. It’s a really tough one for that reason.”

McEwen said the fence’s opacity and length was part of his issue with the variance. He also said the grade level on the side of the house, the part dividing the property with the neighbor, is an issue for him as well, being that it is already raised about two feet, which makes the fence stand close to 8 feet in height.

This only makes it harder to see the house, McEwen said, which is listed by the Chestnut Hill Historical Society as “Historically Significant.”

“It’s a gorgeous house and it adds so much to the neighborhood,” McEwen said. “People ought to be able to see it.”

Fescine said he purchased the home for $550,000 thinking it would be his final destination, his retirement home. He said he didn’t think there would be such an uproar over a fence.

“I don’t think it’s fair to take somebody who just came to the neighborhood who’s trying to do something right by replacing a broken fence with new one,” Fescine said.

“We don’t intend to circumvent the code,” Digiacomo said. “We did misunderstand it, and being new to the neighborhood, we didn’t realize the history surrounding that issue, especially here in Chestnut Hill.”

The LUPZ will form a subcommittee to discuss further alternatives for the fence. In the meantime, Digiacomo and Fescine will brainstorm alternatives and draw up a new proposal to present to the board.

  • June Goodwin

    Those idiots are the reason why people move out of Chestnut Hill. No common sense and no brains inherent in using L & I to act as their enforcer over a trifle thing like a fence which is seen both ways as a security fence and a privacy fence. Even none of the neighbors object to the fence with the exception of LUPZ. The previous owner had 6 feet and nothing was done. LUPZ can lord over the slow decline of Chestnut Hill once people get smart and choose to stay in suburban enclaves across the fence.

  • Linda Mauser

    Due to the fact that huge tree branches were covering numerous lawns this past winter they should consider changing their codes to protect folks from being injured with these massive trees & shrubs. Fences would be safer.My daughter lives in beautiful Chestnut Hill & this winter was like a nightmare.I feared she would get killed by falling branches, tree limbs or from ice falling from them.A fence most likely won’t hurt her when she walks by. Avoid lawsuits!

  • CH Karl

    It is a very pretty fence. Unfortunately, it is too tall and too opaque for its location. Hopefully it can be modified to better suit its location. LUPZ is just doing its job and should enforce the rules in accordance with our established laws, regulations and guidelines.

  • Susan Galka

    As the landscape designer on this property and long time designer in Chestnut Hill I am APPALLED at the utterly poor neighbor experience visited upon my lovely clients. What should have been a joyful experience for people new to the community and excited to be here became something far less than welcoming and gracious and beneath the character and tradition of CH. Lisa and Gary improved their environs by replacing a dilapidated six foot fence with a beautiful one. For that, they’ve been put through the mill. Not just in expense but in the stress of the experience. We’ll have to re do the landscaping too to accommodate whatever fix the board determines. Shame on all involved parties. There are many six foot fences in Chestnut Hill..some old and some new. Most homes in CH it can be argued have some historic or architectural significance. It was their misfortune to have been singled out.
    The property is unusually exposed to traffic and lights where three streets converge which was why a fence had existed there before. It wasn’t there to be unneighborly. The behavior of the board is. And I wonder…aren’t there more pressing issues for the community’s enforcement focus than this?! Anyone reading this article should put themselves into the shoes of Lisa and Gary.
    I am so very disappointed in Chestnut Hill and from the buzz on the street, I’m far from alone. This was shabby.

    • Yo

      I agree with you that they’re being singled out; however, as their landscape designer, shouldn’t you have checked the law and confirmed the plan was in compliance before letting them spend $10k on an illegal fence?

      • Susan Galka

        While in hindsight of course I wish we’d gotten involved in that way, the fence was not subcontracted, it was between the clients and fence company.

        • Gerard Plourde

          Your response brings up some interesting issues. A cursory search of the city’s web site immediately brings up the following information –

          The Zoning Code currently allows fences as follows:

          “Front fences at the front of a dwelling may be up to 3 ½ feet in height.

          Rear – fences at the rear or side of a dwelling may be up to 6 feet in height.Along streets – fences that run parallel to streets are permitted up to 3 ½ feet in height.

          Razor/barbed wire – Please note that the height of a fence includes the height of any razor and/or barbed wire that protrudes from it. Also, it is considered hazardous and in violation of the zoning code if it is strung low enough so as to endanger passers by.”

          The prior fence as shown on Google Street View shows the property had a conforming height at the front and rear of the property and was permitted a six foot height at the side even though this fence runs parallel to the intersection of Winston and Woodale. This may be because of the unusual shape of the lot.

          One possible solution as suggested by Mr. Landis would be to lower the architecturally attractive fence’s height at the front of the property to 3 1/2 feet but to plant a row of shrubs directly behind it that could grow to block the front window from the street. It would also provide the benefit of additional noise abatement.

          I’m puzzled why the homeowners would think that the conditions they cite would contribute to a loss in property value. Everything they cite – trash trucks and workers and the presence of school bus stops are both preexisting and transitory in nature and would be something that could be foreseeable in a corner property. They were most likely factored into the valuation.

          • June Goodwin

            There are many houses with six foot fences. Because they were installed years ago, a replacement of the same height is permitted byright as an maintenance replacement vice a new fence that was never installed on the property and which would have to comply with the city fence requirement unless the owners were able to persuade the ZBA to grant them the variance and the community group did not object. Thus, the new owners were exercising their property right to replace what had to be replaced at the prescribed height, nothing more, nothing less until one of the neighbors squealed to L & I. To use L & I as your personal enforcer against your neighbors is the lowest anyone can do. LUPZ has offered no solution other than to try to pretty up a pig who will then jump back into the mud.

          • Gerard Plourde

            “the new owners were exercising their property right to replace what had to be replaced at the prescribed height, nothing more, nothing less”

            Not completely accurate. As I mentioned in my comment, the fence they were replacing, which can bee seen on Google Street View, was not six feet high at the front of the house. They were seeking to increase the height of the fence at the front of the house. There would have been no issue had they merely replaced at the existing height at all points. For the reasons cited in the article, they clearly did not want to do that.

            It is also clear that the fence contractor must have been aware of the potential issue since the contract clearly states that the that “the owner is responsible for checking the building code”.

            The zoning regulation concerning fence height in the City of Philadelphia is straightforward and not hard to find – 3 1/2 feet high at the front of a property, 6 feet high at the side and rear.

  • hillgirl

    This is absolutely ridiculous. As a homeowner you should be able to make your own decisions of what you want to do with your property. As a current resident of CH this gives me yet another valid reason of why I’m hoping to move from here soon!

    • Gregthec

      Yep. No rules needed. That’s why I’m planning to move my ratty old couch onto my front porch. Oh, and my fridge too!

  • ran mcnalley

    This is ABSOLUTELY a disgrace! Leave these poor people alone! It is their property not YOURS! All of these crazy liberals around here need something better to do than let their little tib bits at their neighbors get to them. They pay their taxes. I have been in Chestnut NUT Hill for a long time and can’t wait to get far away from these nuts.

    • hillgirl

      Take your meds.

  • St wu

    The fence is an eye sore. The owners should not have bought the house if they did not like the location or the big windows.

  • Blue

    This is great isn’t it? Is everybody starting to get notices about their fences and other potential zoning issues, no matter how minor? If we are going to be fair about this, why don’t we each submit zoning complaints for each of the items, no matter how small. Has our neighborhood come to a point where we have nothing better to focus on? Or are we truly able to multi-task and also root our the robberies, PGW digs that have not yet been paved, lack of stopping at stop signs, loitering/noisemaking in the parks at late nights, and even the number of business vacancies we see? Must we rat out each other, especially when a beautiful improvement to a home has been completed with hard earned money?

    Shouldn’t there be some forum where the exact rules can be found easily for us on this site? Regarding the noise from the trash trucks…why hasn’t there been anything done to address that? So much to do and the focus is just wrong.

    Otherwise, let’s just get it out in the open and send letters to everybody that has a fencing issue. Let’s just get it out of our system then. Who’s in for that?

    And realize that prospective home buyers are reading this site. Great way to attract home buyers.