LA’s Battle Over Safety and Too-Tall Fences

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RETHINKING LA - Los Angeles is a city of conflict, filled with neighborhoods that struggle to protect their unique identities, balancing the restriction of boundaries against the freedom of common space while maintaining the natural tension between the rights of the individual and the obligations of the community.


24 years ago, a Los Angeles resident called the Department of Building and Safety and complained of a neighbor’s over-height fence. A battle broke out that went on for years.

The Canoga Park homeowner with the illegal front-yard fence refused to tear it down and instead offered evidence of oversize and illegal fences and hedges at the homes of Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner and City Council members Joy Picus, Marvin Braude, Joel Wachs and Hal Bernson.

The City Attorney considered the abundance of over-height front yard fences in communities throughout Los Angeles and finally issued a statement declaring that the City of LA would only prosecute "emergency situations" involving privately owned fences that are public-safety hazards.

Since then, the memory of the City Attorney’s policy has faded but the municipal code restricting
front yard fences and hedges to a height of 42 inches (three and a half feet) still stands. It is complemented by a requirement that the Department of Building and Safety investigate all complaints from the community, resulting in the selective and uneven enforcement of LA’s front yard fence code.

In East Hollywood, the Department of Building and Safety has experienced a seven-fold increase in complaints of over-height fences and hedges, demonstrating a rift in the community and a disagreement over public safety, crime prevention, personal space and self-preservation. Complaints in Council District 13 typically average one per week but so far this year, there have been 177 complaints.

The cited community members have appealed to anyone who will listen but the response from the Mayor’s office, the City Council office, the City Attorney’s office and City Planning has been underwhelming. Residents argue that the fences are legal if one pays the variance fee but that in a lower income family living in a higher crime rate neighborhood, $4800 is simply too expensive. They want to protect their families and their homes and they perceive the security fencing as a vital last resort.

The Hollywood Studio District and the East Hollywood Neighborhood Councils have responded by calling for a moratorium on the enforcement of over-height fence code violations, for an investigation into the creation of a fence district that would allow for exceptions to the city’s fence limitations, and for a policy that would waive the traditional variance fee in lower income/higher crime neighborhoods.

The typical argument for the issuance of a variance is public safety as the Mayor’s Windsor Square request for a “security wall” at the Getty House demonstrates. Citing public safety concerns, the Mayor’s team successfully navigated the variance process and demonstrated that with sufficient money and expertise, a resident can build an over-height wall.

The Beverly Press reports that the city’s general services and police departments wanted to construct the wall “in order to provide enhanced security for the front of the house.”

So much for the neutrality of the LAPD on the issue of front yard fences.

In the Mayor’s case, the proposed six-foot-three-inch wall not only exceeds the city’s 42” limit, it violates the Windsor Square Historic Preservation Overlay Zone (HPOZ) standards which exist to preserve the architectural character and identity of the neighborhood.

While some argue that the Mayor of Los Angeles is entitled to a wall that protects his privacy and safety, members of the HPOZ Board responded “When he leaves, we will be    stuck with the    fence whether or not there is an occupant of the house.”

The argument against over-height walls typically rests on public safety issues that arise from the creation of hiding places, the removal of “eyes on the streets” and connectivity, and the obstruction of sight lines for motorists in driveways. These concerns only apply to solid walls and hedges and yet open security fencing is still prohibited.

The philosophical debate of Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) is lost on the residents of East Hollywood who simply build fences as a last resort in their efforts to protect themselves and their families from criminal activity.

This past month has been full of community meetings in East Hollywood where the weary turn out with crime reports, citations, and letters of non-compliance in their hands. They bring their families and they tell their stories of children who can’t play outside, of families who live in fear, of a neighborhood under siege. And they ask for help.

At a Town Hall meeting this past Wednesday night, Building and Safety’s Frank Bush and Kim Arthur entered the fray and offered up the options from their perspective, explaining the process and the options. They are responsible for responding to complaints and the complaints come from the community and the fees and penalties are simply cost-recovery.

All true and all demonstrating the limitations of a complaint-driven city operating under the burden of cost-recovery, resulting in the uneven and inequitable application of the law and the revenue driven process that is destroying the middle class.

The LAPD was also at Wednesday’s Town Hall meeting, represented by Rampart’s Sgt. Munoz along with Senior Lead Officers from the Hollywood, Northeast, and Rampart divisions. That’s three divisions from two bureaus (West and Central) giving further witness to the “Who do you call?” dilemma that faces the residents of East Hollywood. They collectively advised the community on the importance of reporting crime but had no official LAPD recommendation on the benefits of security fencing.

City Council President Eric Garcetti was represented by two deputies who echoed Frank Bush’s claim that their hands were tied, that the real issue of fence standards was City Planning’s responsibility, and that the real solution was municipal code revision, a long term process.

The CD13 representatives rejected any short term solutions such as a moratorium on enforcement (dismissed as impossible) and a fence district (dismissed as impossible) and a waiver of variance fees (dismissed as impossible) which left the public with little recourse other than to ask for a payment plan for the fees and fines.

Missing from the Town Hall meeting was the City Attorney and the Mayor, both of whom share responsibility for the loss of the neighborhood prosecutors who should be working with the LAPD on abatement measures and gang injunctions in East Hollywood.

It’s no news to the community that the recent and anticipated wave of parolees means an uptick in criminal activity in the neighborhood, it’s already here and the increase in gang graffiti is the proverbial yellow ribbon.

City Planning may be responsible for the code that specifies the height limits for front yard fences and Building and Safety may be responsible for investigating complaints but none of it would be an issue if the Mayor and the City Council were to partner with the City Attorney and the LAPD in making the streets of East Hollywood safer for the residents.

Then the community could go back to the good old days when front yard fence debates were limited to the merits of picket fencing vs. ornamental iron.

Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall” is set in a rural environment but it also applies to the urban density of East Hollywood when the narrator quotes the neighbor as saying "Good fences make good neighbors.”

Variations of that bit of country wisdom appear in Norway (“There must be a fence between good neighbors”), Germany (“Between neighbor’s gardens a fence is good”), Japan (“Build a fence even between intimate friends”), and even India (“Love your neighbor, but do not throw down the dividing wall”).

But in East Hollywood, they’re fighting words.

This is a shame because East Hollywood is the most densely populated neighborhood in the City of LA and researchers at the University of California have tested the “Good fences” adage and discovered that it's true. An increase in personal space or privacy increases the likelihood of residents talking to each other, interacting with each other, and creating community.

Meanwhile, in Windsor Square, the deadline for appeals to the Mayor’s variance request was yesterday, resulting in a chorus of tepid “What are we going to do, he’s the Mayor!” objections and then silence.

As for the Mayor and his staff, they have not been seen at any of the neighborhood meetings in East Hollywood, they have not responded to any of the community concerns over public safety in East Hollywood, and they have not offered any solutions to the calls for relief in East Hollywood.

(Stephen Box is a grassroots advocate and writes for CityWatch. He can be reached at:                 Stephen@thirdeyecreative.net .) –cw

Tags: Mayor Villaraigosa, Windsor Square, East Hollywood, Canoga Park, Department of Building and Safety, City Planning, City Attorney, crime rate, fence code violations, fences, Getty House




CityWatch
Vol 9 Issue 50
Pub: June 24, 2011

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