Traverse City Record-Eagle

January 2, 2013

Fences are back in the city spotlight

Officials to research possibility of regulating residential fences


TRAVERSE CITY — City officials will take a peek at regulating fences after hearing complaints about 10-foot high masonry walls around residences along Division Street.

Traverse City planning commissioners directed staff to research a fence ordinance after decades of straddling what's been a contentious issue. Planners have considered an ordinance four times since 1977, but never acted.

The lack of city guidelines for fence building — coupled with recent construction of a nearly 10-foot high cement wall on the west side of Division Street — prompted residents Pat and Dennis LaBelle to request city action.

"It's a perfect time to address this because it's so ugly, it just sticks out, it really does," Pat LaBelle said of the new wall. "That's a good example of how bad it can get."

Such walls reduce neighborhood safety by obstructing views and give tourists the wrong impression of Traverse City, the LaBelles said.

"The unintentional message these high, solid walls sends to visitors is that there are potential crime issues and that people are not welcome in this area," the LaBelles wrote in a letter to the planning commission.

Kathie Scott lives at Fifth Street and Division and has heard criticism that residential walls make Division Street look like Detroit. She shrugs it off.

"Tough, you don't live here," she said of wall critics.

Scott tried wood fences and cedar shrubs but said they didn't help block traffic noise from busy Division Street.

"We were not able to have a conversation in the back-yard until the traffic clears, and do you know how often the traffic clears on Division?" Scott said. "Not very often."

An architect told her she needed mass, so several years ago she invested over $25,000 in a wall and terraced flower beds to block sound. On the outside she planted climbing ivy, trumpet vines, and other perennials to soften the look.

A block away, Leslie Sickterman gets by with a wood fence and vegetation.

"Masonry walls are expensive and it would seem like you are in a prison yard, too oppressive," Sickterman said.

But she doesn't begrudge her neighbors' choices.

"It's really hard living on Division, so whatever it takes to make people comfortable," she said.

The LaBelles, who live near Huron Hills, said they don't blame Division residents for building walls. But they contend the city has a responsibility to the community and people who visit here.

And their concerns aren't just about Division Street, Pat LaBelle said. Her neighbors wouldn't like it if she built a 12-foot high fence to loom over their yards and home.

City Commissioner Jim Carruthers said he has sections of fence 10 feet high in his back and side yard to create private areas, as do many Central Neighborhood residents. A 2007 effort to regulate fences fell when residents voiced concerns about losing their privacy screens, Carruthers said.

But he agrees the city needs some regulation to prevent abuse.

Planning commissioners were divided in their opinions when they discussed it in December.

Some said the focus should be on fixing traffic issues on Division Street, but most planners indicated concerns about tall fences and walls spreading to other streets and "destroying the look of the neighborhoods."

City staffers were directed to research solutions for both main corridors and residential side streets and return to the commission with their findings at a future date.