GAITHERSBURG—The Gaithersburg mayor and city council met to discuss city business and hold public hearings on fences and local development projects.
On June 17, the mayor and council discussed changes to city regulations covering fences, walls and hedges on residents’ properties.
Jasmine Forbes, who serves in a Planning I Position, explained to the mayor and council that as it stands, residents in the city can have a fence in their front yard that is three feet high and fences in the back and side of their yards that are six feet high.
The planning board’s report on the matter notes that last year the mayor and council received communication from a Gaithersburg resident voicing concern about a lack of notification about a fence. The citizen explained that the fence was approved, even though it is taller than what is currently permitted.
The planning board noted that the mayor and council decided to include the city’s Fence Ordinance as a key action item as part of the Planning and Development Strategic Direction for 2019.
“So, the intent of this text amendment is to include notification requirements for fences that are over the (permitted right); currently there is no such requirement for notification,” said Forbes. “This is a case where the city continues to try to be open and transparent and to just notify neighbors of a fence that could possibly impact their property.”
She explained that similar regulations apply to terraces and hedges as well, which often serve as an alternative to a fence. Also, in some cases, Forbes noted, hedges are so deep that they act like a retaining wall.
Forbes went on to explain that residents wanting to build a fence higher than the six feet typically permitted would need to submit a notification form to their neighbor, or, the neighbor’s property owner, in the case of renters.
Applications for fences will include information such as how tall the fence is designed to be, the location, how to review the application if someone has any concerns or comments, where to send those comments and the appeal process.
“(The appeal process is) just in case of a fence that is approved, and the residents feel there was an error in issuing that permit, there is an appeal process where they can go and appeal that decision regarding the fence,” Forbes said.
She explained that there is a seven-day review period so that staff can look over the plans.
“It seems like we have a combination of some reasonable transparency that we’re adding to our code,” said Mayor Jud Ashman. “It’s housekeeping, so it all seems reasonable to me at this point.”
Councilmember Ryan Spiegel noted that the permitting process could be difficult for a resident who wants to put up a terrace on a steep hill. He noted his concern that building a relatively simple terrace would require a whole site-development plan, even if it is a relatively minor project for a single-family home.
“(A terrace) is almost like a retaining wall; it’s like a natural retaining wall, and there are requirements for retaining walls, so the application they will submit is like a site development application,” Forbes explained.
Trudy Schwarz, who serves as the Planning Division Chief Liaison to the planning commission, said that with any retaining wall over three feet, the city needs to undergo a stricter review.
“That’s mainly because of structural concerns, and one of the reasons we do require site-development permits is that most of our properties are so finely graded that there is a drainage issue,” Schwarz explained. “Drainage problems happen when somebody goes in and begins work without anyone looking at the overall site, because it can lead to flooding in different places.”
Councilmember Robert Wu noted that the new permitting process for fences and terraces shifts the procedure toward a city-centric one instead of working fencing issues out between neighbors.
Gregory Mann, who serves as a Community planning lead for Gaithersburg, explained that changing the process of permitting for fences in the city is a way to help residents.
“I don’t know if the process enters a more city-centric process; it was more discretion in our opinion that was never there before to notify neighbors that a fence may be coming in and also providing a way for someone to then appeal the decision if they felt there was an error,” Mann said. “So, it’s kind of a way of getting around obstinate neighbors.”
The council agreed that adoption of the new guidelines should be implemented in August.