News Story

Restrictive Fence Ordinance Makes Unhappy Neighbors

Grosse Pointe Woods bans privacy fences

Residents of Grosse Pointe Woods are questioning an almost two-year-old ordinance that bans the construction of privacy fences higher than four feet.

The Grosse Pointe Woods City Council passed ordinance 871 in January 2017 mandating a maximum four-foot fence height. The ordinance also requires two-inch openings in fencing, effectively banning privacy fences.

Phillip Whitman, a Grosse Pointe Woods resident and former municipal affairs attorney for Lincoln Park and Southgate, testified last week in favor of repealing the ordinance. Now, he’s planning on collecting signatures to force a vote or repeal of the measure.

Whitman said in an interview with Michigan Capitol Confidential that he first learned about the ordinance when he got a quote from a contractor to build a privacy fence at his new residence. The contractor said it couldn’t be done because of the ordinance.

“There’s no rational basis to [the ordinance], no governmental interest being furthered,” Whitman said. “On top of that, they are applying the ordinance in an arbitrary way.”

On May 21, the City Council denied a couple’s request to build a six-foot privacy fence on their property, which would protect their toddler from a neighbor’s dog, Grosse Pointe News reported. The request was denied even though the dog’s owner testified before the council in support of the fence being built.

In other cases, the city has made exceptions. Earlier this month, it approved a variance request for a six-foot fence in the yard of a home where a special needs child lives, according to the Grosse Pointe News. It also approved a variance request for a six-foot fence to replace an older fence.

Whitman, who created a blog advocating for the fence ban, spoke to the council on Sept. 17 and characterized the issue as a violation of privacy and private property rights.

“As we have seen, not only is the privacy fence ban unreasonable on its face, this council has applied it an arbitrary and capricious manner, brazenly denying variances that will make our families safer,” Whitman said at the meeting. “This opens us all up to liability for the consequences of those poor decisions. The only justification council has given for such a serious restriction on our property rights is this: the prevention of something called ‘stockade mentality.’ It has been described to me by members of this council as an effort to foster a sense of community and neighborliness. Frankly, we don’t need a ban on privacy fences to achieve that.”

Most Michigan municipalities have fence ordinances of varying degrees. The city of Berkley allows privacy fences of up to six feet, four inches, while Rochester Hills, Novi, and Dexter allow fences of up to six feet. Allen Park allows six-foot-tall fences only on rear lot lines.

Whitman said the council tabled the issue for an upcoming committee meeting and that he will begin collecting signatures next week to force a vote on the ordinance or overturn it. The ordinance can be repealed outright with 3,500 voter signatures, he said.

The city administrator did not respond to a request for comment.