by Celeste Hardester

Seventh of a series from the Chestnut Hill Community Association Physical Division

Of course there is a story to how fences came to be. There is always a story if one thinks to ask the question. Leaving aside the subject of stonewalls, as in Bronze Age stone walls permeating the Irish countryside, or the Old Testament walls of Jericho, or the more modern Great Wall of China, it is the Greeks who are credited with creating fences. Within Athens, social standards kept people separated, but in their conquered lands of Asia Minor, partitions were built to divide the spoils. The Romans followed suit.

For Anglo-Saxons, it was all about hedges and privets that created on-site resources for crop-pollinators, while simultaneously managing crops, wildlife, livestock, and soil erosion. What a system!

In America, the split-rail worm fence was an ingenious design that was post-free and quick to put up. Come the settlement of towns and villages, picket fences brought a whole new charm to the concept of fences. And then the Victorians turned fencing into a high art, creating wrought iron fences that were strong, durable, aesthetically pleasing and, due to their transparency, neighborly.

And so we arrive at the era of Chestnut Hill. Just about every twist on the way humans have divided properties exists here. For starters, many properties have no vertical dividers between properties, or the street. Hedges are on most every block, creating at least a separation along the street front. Picket fences, be they white or natural, are everywhere to be seen. Gorgeous stonewalls built in an era when they were affordable create other boundaries.

Wrought iron fences are a common sight. What a smart investment these fences were: built to last, usually the only thing they need is a new coat of paint, unless someone has unfortunately driven a vehicle into them. Cared for, they are an asset that can last the lifetime of the house. They are such a respected form of fencing that the trade still exists, and not just in the look-alike versions of coated aluminum, but in newly built fencing using both traditional designs and modern variations. And the architectural salvage industry often has panels and gates ready to be used again. While we are not in the position to provide recommended sources, googling something like “why use wrought iron fence” can provide many interesting resources.

A fantastic feature of wrought iron fences is that they provide transparency, allowing for a visual connection between the enclosed property and neighboring properties, and the street. This is a quality that is identified in the Philadelphia Zoning Code as an important value. According to the Code, fences along a street front must be no more than 50 percent opaque, and no more than four feet tall.  Wrought iron fences can be relatively simple to install, so while the cost of materials may be high relative to a wooden fence, the cost of their installation, and their lifetime durability are worthy factors for consideration.

Sadly, Chestnut Hill is also replete with solid wooden fences along many street fronts. These are basically referred to as stockade fencing, and that is their effect. The definition of stockade is a barrier of defense against attack and/or to keep livestock in. While many people have dogs that need free and safe access to their own yards, a solid wood fence is likely not necessary.

An unfortunate phenomenon of these solid fences is the misunderstanding that, because it exists, it can be replaced in kind, grandfathered in, as it were. This is not the case. While owning an illegal fence is not illegal, replacing it with the same kind of fence is.

For more information on fencing, we encourage you to visit this page on the CHCA website: chestnuthill.org/advocacy.php

And for a clear explanation of the Philadelphia Zoning Code regarding fences: chestnuthill.org/docs/CHCA_Fence_Communication_Statement_5-2-17.pdf

Regulations for side and rear fences are more lenient than front yards. The CHCA recommends neighborly discussions that address everyone’s preferences and concerns in order to find a solution that best fits.

A sense of privacy is a legitimate reason for wanting a fence. Placement and thoughtful design are key. Solutions other than solid fencing can be found. Plant material such as shrubs and hedges can be used on their own or in conjunction with a semi-opaque fence to achieve privacy without resorting to stockade style fencing. An added benefit is that plants are not legislated in terms of height or species. Once established, they are an asset to the environment and wildlife.

Fences are a fine thing. Like a frame around a picture, they can create a sense of definition that completes the image. For the owner, they can create a sense of safety and freedom within their own property. For the passerby and neighbors, they can also create a sense of safety, knowing that that soccer ball or running dog is not coming their way.  With visual transparency between properties, fences can enhance a sense of community and continuity, and an acknowledgment of shared interests.

Celeste Hardester is the development review coordinator for the CHCA’s Physical Division.

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