Small corner lot owners feel penalized by code
JANESVILLE Most folks like a little privacy in their backyards, but some residents on small corner lots said Janesville's fencing ordinance makes it difficult for them to create an outdoor retreat.
"The taxes on corner lots should be cheaper than standard lots because the yard is useless to me," one frustrated resident said.
Another described the ordinance as "ridiculous," saying it makes no sense.
One Realtor told the owner of another small corner lot that a fence along his side yard would increase his property value. But zoning didn't make the fence practical, the resident said.
Council members Matt Kealy and DuWayne Severson have asked city staff to research the fencing issue and bring it to the council for discussion. A resident concerned about the code contacted Kealy.
The code requires fences or hedges taller than 30 inches be set back 25 feet from property lines, city staff said. Fences can be installed within the setback if the corner of the house is within the 25-foot setback and if the fence is built no closer to the property line than the house. A fence can be built within the setback if it can be seen through, such as a chain-link fence.
The code doesn't cause issues for homes not on corners or on large corner lots, associate city planner Brad Schmidt said.
He agrees it is "tough" for people on small corner lots in older neighborhoods because they have two setback requirements—one along each street. A 25-foot setback along two sides leaves little yard to be fenced.
"New, single-family home developments offer large lots, spacious backyards and the houses are set back farther from the street," he said.
After the zoning board of appeal received numerous requests for variances to the fencing rules, city staff in 2004 suggested the code be modified from a 25-foot setback to a 10-foot setback.
The city council, though, never took up the issue because the recommendation never made it past the administration.
The vast majority of fencing variance requests continue to be granted.
"We see quite a bit of these come through and getting approved," Schmidt said. "When that happens, that's when we need to look at code. Essentially, a precedent is being set, and now it is easier to change the code."
Kealy said he didn't think residents should have to pay $200 if the board always grants the appeals. Residents agree.
They said zoning should change, and they hope the council considers a two-foot or three-foot setback.
Residents with concerns spoke on the condition that their names not be published, saying they don't want to hurt their chances of someday getting fences.
"My first question is, 'Why?'" one resident asked. "What is your justification for even the 10 feet? What does even a 10-foot setback accomplish?
"Someone can put up a chain-link fence, but I can't put up a nice cedar fence? I could live with two or three feet, but to make 15 feet of your lot unusable, that is ridiculous, unless you can give me a reason why."
His home's setback is 15 feet.
Schmidt said reasons for the setbacks include:
-- Preserving lines of sight for drivers approaching intersections. He acknowledged that a fence in a corner side yard rarely impacts that vision.
-- Preserving lines of sight for drivers exiting driveways. Fences or hedges close to a sidewalk could block the view of drivers as they try to enter the street.
-- Preventing assaults. Fences and bushes provide places behind which someone could hide and accost passersby.
-- Preserving aesthetic. The front yard setback prevents a row of tall fences built along sidewalks, he said.
-- Preserving views for neighbors. A fence up against a sidewalk along a corner lot could block the vision of a next-door neighbor, he said.
Schmidt said zoning codes often are black-and-white rules, but properties have individual characteristics.
Dave Woodbeck, 137 S. Ringold St., earlier this year paid $200 for a variance for a fence on his small corner lot.
His fence is about 11 feet from the property line, or four feet inside the 15-foot setback established by the line of his home.
In a memo to the board of appeals, Schmidt recommended the variance be granted. Five similar variances have been granted within a one-mile radius of Woodbeck's property since 1991, Schmidt said.
In fact, all the homes along St. Lawrence Avenue are within the required front yard setback and do not conform to city code, he said. Parcels in the neighborhood are relatively small—about 8,700 square feet. Newer lots are about twice that size.
Woodbeck said he and his wife, Kristin, just wanted a little backyard privacy.
"At times, it felt like were having dinner on our patio with anybody who happened to walk by," he said.
A Realtor told Woodbeck a fence would help him sell his house if he ever puts it on the market.
Woodbeck wondered if the ordinance could be more flexible and require a variance only if staff and homeowners disagree.
Woodbeck said he's very social and has great relationships with his neighbors. Several neighbors, in fact, wrote to support his request for a variance.
"But sometimes you just want to have your own space," Woodbeck said.