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.