It’s been several years since a storm took out a section of the fence around Diane Schultz’s yard, but that windy day likely will have a lingering impact on St. Paul residents looking to add fences.
Council Member Amy Brendmoen heard about Schultz’s struggle to deal with the city’s fence construction requirements after the storm. Since then, she has heard other concerns that the rules are overly complicated, and an employee at a fence construction company even said he was considering giving up work in the city entirely.
Brendmoen is pushing to change the city code and streamline the regulations by eliminating an inspection. St. Paul needs to stop making it difficult for people to invest in their properties, she said. New rules will likely be approved early next month.
With about 900 people getting permits for fences in St. Paul every year, city officials hope to make the process easier for a lot of residents by reducing the number of steps they have to go through during construction.
“This is a situation where someone calling and making a simple complaint changed our city practices,” Brendmoen said at a recent council meeting, and thanked Schultz.
St. Paul currently requires residents who are adding a new fence to go through a site plan review, pay for a permit, typically $38, and undergo a fence inspection. That inspection is rather unusual, city staff said, and many cities, like Minneapolis, require only a site plan.
Residents are frustrated with the many time-consuming hurdles they need to go through in St. Paul, said Kim O’Brien, Brendmoen’s legislative aide. But since they usually build a fence only once, she said they rarely complain to the city and those concerns have flown under the radar.
“We don’t want the experience in St. Paul to be worse or different,” from Minneapolis or other cities, O’Brien said. “This is just one small area where we can make the experience better for customers and spend the money on life safety issues.”
The city plans to eliminate the inspection requirement. Inspections are burdensome for residents or contractors building a fence, Brendmoen said, and also mean more work for city staff.
If city inspectors do not have to check out hundreds of fences every year, it frees them up to focus on bigger projects, said Travis Bistodeau, deputy director of the Department of Safety and Inspections. The city will still inspect fences if there are complaints about them.
St. Paul expects to save money with the change. The city’s staffing costs for fence inspectors exceeds the revenue they make off fence permit fees by about $10,000 annually, according to city estimates.
About 40 percent of the time, contractors do not even set up a final inspection, according to Robert Humphrey, safety and inspections spokesman. Those rule breakers are a low priority, he said, because fences are not particularly dangerous.
Fences that were not inspected — or even permitted — are all over the city, said Derek Vocovich, with fencing contractor Midwest Fence, which builds hundreds of fences in St. Paul every year.
“I drive by many fences that are out of code, nothing happens, nothing changes,” he said.
Vocovich supports the removal of the inspection requirement. And he is glad fence builders will still need to pay for a permit — a step Minneapolis doesn’t require, but one he said protects homeowners.