The new neighbor in town: 6 feet, with an ugly side

  • Article by: MARY JANE SMETANKA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 28, 2010 - 10:28 PM

Higher, solid fences are replacing the more open chain-link version as Twin Cities homeowners seek more privacy.

Barking dogs. People who sit nude in hot tubs within eyesight of indignant neighbors. Tired homeowners who just want a little peace in their backyard.

It's a recipe for a fence, preferably opaque and six feet high. A yen for privacy -- or a desire to avoid neighbors -- is driving homeowners away from traditional chain-link and picket fences toward barriers that block prying eyes and cut interactions with neighbors. Cities are tweaking their ordinances in response.

"We're seeing more requests for wood fences," said Darlene Munoz, office manager for Sterling Fence of Eden Prairie. "I just assume people want privacy and have issues with their neighbors. It's 'I don't want to look at my neighbors' junk,' or 'I don't want to see them.'"

Mark Wassink, a salesman at Town and Country Fence of Brooklyn Park, said chain-link is still used to contain pets and children, but its use is fading as privacy fences gain favor.

"It's aesthetics," he said. "Residentially speaking, chain-link has virtually gone away. ... In places like Golden Valley and south Minneapolis, we're maybe seeing more privacy fences because of the [smaller] size of the yards."

Putting up a tall fence may please the homeowner, but it can offend neighbors who perceive a privacy fence as a gesture of hostility.

Paul Smith, a Minneapolis zoning inspector with a poetic bent, said the issue is, "Are you trying to keep people in or people out?" He quoted from Robert Frost's poem "Mending Wall," which includes the phrase "Good fences make good neighbors." It also says: "Before I built a wall I'd ask to know / What I was walling in or walling out, / And to whom I was like to give offense."

Said Smith: "We deal a lot with neighbors who are quarreling. Sometimes there's a longtime feud, and they just want to put up a wall so the neighbor won't be offended by what they're doing. And they run afoul of the zoning code."

A Minneapolis resident was recently cited for adding a 10-foot fence to a deck "so they wouldn't have to look at their neighbor in the hot tub," Smith said. In most cities, including Minneapolis, residential fences in backyards can be no higher than 6 feet unless the property backs onto a busy street or a commercial or industrial site.

'Creative' fencing goes too far

The passion for fences has led some cities to refine their ordinances to prevent people from erecting too-tall fences or building fences with the ugly side facing out. Golden Valley is working on new fence rules now. After disputes in Bloomington about which fence side faced neighbors, new rules took effect last year. The city makes clear that the pretty side of the fence needs to face neighbors, that high fencing in front yards is prohibited and that people can't fashion fences out of doors, bicycle parts and spare iron parts.

"People can get creative," said Elizabeth Shevi, Bloomington community development planner. "Some of the primary changes really went to regulating fence height and opacity. We do not want the long privacy fences that have a fortress look in front yards."

In many Twin Cities communities, fence heights must drop to 3 or 4 feet in front and side yards. Sometimes fencing is barred from front yards. While cities are divided on requiring permits for fences, they all have standards for fencing and get calls when something goes wrong.

Fences address 'other issues'

Shevi said she recently had a long talk with a woman who wanted to put up a fence to block neighbors. When it ended, the resident thanked Shevi for the "therapy session."

"It's amazing how many people complain about neighbors' fences," Shevi said. "Sometimes they feel like the fence is not located properly, or they don't like the look of it, or it's not properly maintained.

"But usually there are other issues going on [between neighbors]."

Wassink joked that fence contractors' best friends are dogs and kids, because they prompt homeowners to add fences. He said the second most common reason to build a fence is privacy.

"People put up privacy fences because of neighbors," he said. "There's junk in the yard, or noisy dogs. ... The closer the houses are, the more likely it is that we see privacy fences."

'Californian culture'

Macalester College geography Prof. David Lanegran agrees that "We've gone from fencing our dogs and kids in to fencing our neighbors out." But he distinguishes "defensive fencing" of front yards, which may reflect fear, from privacy fencing in backyards.

Chain-link was a cheap, utilitarian way to contain dogs and kids and provide security in backyards, he said, and in the past was the only fence many people could afford. He thinks the rise of solid fences around backyards came with the spread of "Californian culture" in the Midwest. Minnesotans who once lounged on the front porch, chatting with neighbors, now spend their time on backyard patios and decks around the barbeque.

"The old cliche of people talking over the backyard fence was more true when people, especially women, were at home," Lanegran said. "Now people don't want to talk to their neighbors after work. They just want to plunk down with a drink and read the newspaper or something."

Patrick Caruso, general manager of Premier Fence in St. Paul, said, "People like their space, their ownership. The yard is an extension of their homes."

Golden Valley City Planner Joe Hogeboom thinks homeowners in his city are more interested in quality fencing partly because they're staying longer in their homes and trying to improve those properties. "There's an increase in outdoor-living type of projects," he said. "We're also getting more inquiries about patios and decks."

Fence contractors Munoz and Caruso are sensitive to the message privacy fences send neighbors. Munoz, who grew up in rural Illinois, said she considered many such fences "antisocial." In her Eden Prairie neighborhood of big yards, she said, no one has fences.

Caruso said he had decided to keep a 4-foot chain-link fence in part of his yard because he likes his neighbors.

"We're all very friendly," he said. "But I have a huge backyard and I can get away if I want."

Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380

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