Village Board Moves Forward on Revising Fence Law to Protect Against `Neighbors from Hell’

By Liz Schevtchuk Armstrong

The Cold Spring Village Board Tuesday (Oct. 5) moved ahead on efforts to allow residents to install higher fences as protection against the “neighbor from hell “¦ dog from hell “¦ dumpster from hell.”     
       Currently, the village code limits fences to 4 feet in height. But as Zoning Board of Appeals Chairman Donald MacDonald told the Village Board on Tuesday, problems arise when residents want higher fences, appearing before the ZBA with gripping stories: “I have a neighbor from hell, I have the dog from hell, I have the dumpster from hell.” He made similar points in a memo June 28.
       During meetings on June 1 and July 6, the Village Board discussed possible revisions to the fence law. On Tuesday the mayor and trustees brought in MacDonald and other members of the ZBA, for a round-table discussion. The tentative upshot: plans to revise the law to permit fences higher than four feet on one side to screen off a problematic adjacent property, unless that troublesome property extends to another side as well — as with an L-shaped lot that wraps around two sides of a neighbor’s yard; in such a situation a fence could extend around the corner as well. 
       Before anything can be final, however, the village attorney must write a proposed law, to go to the Village Board and ZBA as well as other advisory boards for review. MacDonald said that the ZBA has received requests for eight or nine years from residents seeking higher fences, usually along one side — typically the back — and that for two years the ZBA has struggled with ways to accommodate them. “We’re human. We live in the village. We understand the issue,” he said Tuesday. But while the ZBA might be amenable to variances — exceptions to the law — in cases of genuine suffering, “how do you distinguish” between those and instances where homeowners desire fences for less pressing reasons, he asked. “The one we would grant in a heartbeat.” But the ZBA hesitate to open the door to uniform granting of variances because that would be tantamount to changing the law, which goes beyond the ZBA’s purview, he explained. “You guys are the ones to do that,” he told the mayor and trustees. You’re the elected officials. It’s your job to rewrite the law.”
       The discussion was prompted in part by the pleas of a Paulding Avenue resident, Thomas Ambrose, who wants a fence to shield part of his property. Neither the ZBA nor Village Board denied that his situation falls into the realm of genuine hardship. It also involves the need for a fence on more than one side — hence the boards’ interest in protecting peaceful residents from abusive neighbors with wrap-around lots. Ambrose showed the boards photographs taken throughout the village of 77 fences taller than four feet. “They’re visibly blatant,” he said. “I feel there’s an unequal protection thing happening here.”
       MacDonald said that sometimes residents have replaced old “grandfathered-in” fences pre-dating zoning law with new fences higher than what now would be allowed. In other cases, he acknowledged, “people have just said, `the hell with it’ and gone and done it.”
       “People are putting up 6-foot fences without getting approval,” Mayor Seth Gallagher agreed. “Some people want it on more than one side.” In July, he suggested allowing 6-foot fences in side and back yards.
       On Tuesday, the ZBA members expressed skepticism about going that far. “Will that change the character of the neighborhood?” ZBA member Greg Gunder wondered. “That’s a huge change.”  The ZBA fears that what happens “with 6-foot fences everywhere is that you have the stockade effect,” MacDonald said.
       “As one who moved to this village for its character, I’m not looking to radically change the character, either,” Ambrose assured the boards.
       Trustee Airinhos Serradas questioned if Ambrose’s concerns could be addressed by issuing a variance. “Wouldn’t it be more prudent, as opposed to rewriting the law?”
       “I feel it should be a change in general for the village “¦ not just for his case,” ZBA member Dick Turner replied.
       “It’s a bit more equal” to simply change the law, the mayor observed. Revising the law streamlines the process and spares residents from even having to apply for a variance, MacDonald said. “What we’re all trying to do is make it easier for everybody overall to live in the village and not have to go through a lot of village bureaucracy.” 
       The two boards then informally agreed on the text of a draft law: “In all yards, fence height is limited to  4 feet, 0 inches, and fence posts to 4 feet, 6 inches, with the following exception: Each parcel may have one length of fence no higher than 6 feet, 0 inches, and fence posts 6 feet, 6 inches, in either the rear yard or that portion of one side yard between the rear corner of the building closest to the rear and side property lines. Or, in cases where the problem neighbor’s property shares more than one side, the fence can extend along that side, with the good side out.”
       Gallagher promised to send the rough draft to Stephen Gaba, the village attorney, to finesse by finding the proper way to refer to a “problem neighbor” and otherwise turn their version into polished legal prose.