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Courtenay struggles with over-height fence issue

If good fences make for good neighbours, what about fences that exceed height regulations?
City of Calgary fence height requirements. The two on the left are the same as in Courtenay. (Drawing: City of Calgary)

If good fences make for good neighbours, what about fences that exceed height regulations?

Should Courtenay jump in and start enforcing fence height requirements everywhere, probably at considerable expense?

Or just wait until complaints come in?

The city up until now has had no written bylaw enforcement policy to deal with such matters.

Enforcement has been done by staff using discretion to determine the appropriate course of action, based on urgency, issues of public safety and available resources.

“Our current philosophy regarding bylaw enforcement is to seek compliance,” wrote John Ward, director of legislative services, in his report to council Tuesday night.

“This has generally been very successful, with compliance achieved primarily due to informal mediation by the bylaw enforcement officer and the director of legislative services.”

Ward said this relatively low-key approach won’t change with the new bylaw enforcement policy.

The new policy comes about in the wake of a publication by the office of the ombudsperson.

“Bylaw Enforcement Best Practices Guide for Local Governments” recommends that councils adopt a bylaw enforcement policy “to ensure a consistent, fair and transparent approach.”

The proposed new Courtenay enforcement policy states that routine complaints must be filed in writing, by two unrelated complainants.

One written complaint is acceptable if the complainant’s property is within 100 metres of the alleged infraction, or if it’s from an RCMP officer.

Otherwise, the emphasis remains on “voluntary compliance,” giving people an opportunity to comply with a bylaw before further action is taken, such as a municipal ticket and fine.

That’s where the over-height fence issue comes in.

Ward said the city doesn’t receive a lot of complaints about fences.

But, he added, “there are a lot of over-height fences in the city. It’s a large issue.”

“The question is whether we as staff proceed with injunctive proceedings … or we look at perhaps changing the height requirement in certain areas,” he said, adding the staff was looking to council for guidance.

CAO Dave Allen said “what triggered this issue today has been a complaint from one complainant.”

He said if there were a number of complaints then the amount of time and resources would go up considerably to deal with them.

“Council is well within its purview to not enforce. We’re introducing the issue … not saying it’s either-or. We just don’t know what the implications would be for either course of action,” Allen said.

In residential zones the maximum height for a fence in or along a front yard is 1.25 metres, and two metres along the side or rear yard. A hedge, though, can be as high as you like.

“A recent bylaw complaint has resulted in a citizen requesting that either Council enforce the fence height provision in the zoning bylaw, or change the provision to allow increased height,” wrote Ward in his report. “While this appears to be a reasonable request, there are potentially significant implications to either course of action.”

Mayor Larry Jangula said if the city starts enforcing the height regulation, there are problems.

“If you don’t, it leads to confusion and anger. This is not an easy one to solve.”

Counc. Erik Eriksson said it’s “awkward” when a homeowner has a fence that doesn’t comply, but gets away with it “for years and years.” Then someone new moves in across the street and “says I don’t like that fence.”

Counc. Doug Hillian said the “neighbourly” thing to do is consult the people around you when building a fence.

“There’s all sorts of circumstances, we can’t make policy that addresses all of them,” he said.

In the end, council agreed to direct staff to investigate and recommend enforcement action on over-height fences upon receipt of a valid complaint, as outlined in the new bylaw enforcement policy.