Mayor calls for extensive overhaul of Burlington’s fencing requirements

A staff-level attempt to straddle the fence with respect to Burlington’s fencing requirements seems to have hit a brick wall with the city’s top-ranking elected official.

Mayor Jim Butler ultimately rebuffed this admittedly modest rewrite of the current fence regulations when it appeared among a raft of proposed ordinance revisions that the city’s planning department presented to Burlington’s city council on Monday.

Butler went on to demand that the planning department embark on a more “comprehensive” overhaul of the city’s fencing restrictions.

“People are sensitive over fences,” he added amid the general concurrence of his fellow council members, “and I think we need to dig into it a little bit more.”

Butler and his colleagues were much more comfortable with the planning department’s other proposals, which include changes to Burlington’s rules for residential signage, storage lots for towed vehicles, and industrial uses in commercial zones.

The council also had no qualms with other proposed amendments would make it easier to renovate or expand homes that are grandfathered into industrial zones, limit the areas where adult establishments can set up shop, and offer residential developers more generous density bonuses if they include features like open space and pedestrian accommodations in their subdivisions.

In the end, the proposed fencing standards were the only real sticking point in the planning department’s whole 91-page catalog of potential changes, which was formally presented to the council during a regularly-scheduled work session on Monday. Yet, these fencing-related provisions were also no idle fancy, according to Chad Meadows, a hired consultant who has helped the planning department draft its ordinance amendments.

During Monday’s work session, Meadows insisted that the regulation of fences has been “a gigantic problem” for the city’s planning department.

“The current standards call for fences to have their finished side out so when a neighbor looks at a fence they see the finished side of the fence,” he went on to elaborate. “This has created countless problems with enforcement, and what we are trying to suggest here is a compromise position which recognizes that, for the most part, what we care the most about in these fence regulations is what these fences look like from the public realm.”

Meadows went on recommend that the city only require the finished side of a fence to face outward when it is within a property owner’s street set back. He also proposed that people who want to avoid this requirement, and turn the finished side inward, they could use shrubs to screen the fence’s exterior.

Meadows said that these proposed regulations ought to nip the numerous questions that the city’s code enforcement staff currently get about how to distinguish the finished side of the fence or screen the unfinished side from the outside.

Burlington’s planning director Jamie Lawson added that the confusion over the existing rules is only exacerbated by a widespread ignorance among residents that the rules even exist.
“A lot of fences go up without any permits whatsoever,” she said, “and a good number of fences that go up without permits are done with the finished side facing in.”

Lawson said that the city has tried to prevent these blunders by routinely notifying companies that sell or install fencing about the city’s restrictions. She added, however, that the message has been slow to sink in with some businesses, which has left the city’s code staff in the unenviable position of having to inform property owners that their fences violate municipal standards.

Lawson told the council that the proposed regulations are meant to split the difference in cases where well-meaning residents currently find themselves out of compliance with the city’s rules. Yet, her high hopes for the suggested changes failed to rub off on Burlington’s mayor Jim Butler.

“I’ve been in a million fence discussions over the last couple of years. So, I get all this,” Butler acknowledged. “But by making a broad sweeping change to finished side out, thinking that’s going to solve our problems, is fool’s gold.”

Butler recommended a more “comprehensive” response to the city’s dilemma that includes a harder line with the contractors and retailers whom he ultimately blamed for the rule violations.

“I’d rather put some sort of ordinance in that if it’s not done right the installer’s going to fix it,” he insisted, “and there are retailers of fences that will intentionally mislead the consumer.”
In response to Butler’s concerns, Meadows agreed to pull his fencing-related suggestions from the rest of the package in order to do some extra fine-tuning with those provisions.

Meanwhile, the council agreed to hold a public hearing on the remainder of the proposed amendments during its regularly-scheduled meeting on May 16.