Now that spring is in sight, many homeowners are looking forward to the rewarding challenges of home improvement. While improvements to the interior of your home are limited only by your budget and imagination, improvements to your lawn and garden are bound by the size of your lot and the rules governing property disputes between neighbors. These restrictions often come into play when one neighbor decides to improve or repair things that lie on the border of their neighbor’s property – usually, a fence. Before you decide to build or repair that fence, it’s important to know the local laws governing where fences can be built, what they can look like, and how disputes about boundary fences are resolved.
Whether you’re building a new fence, repairing an old one, or discussing a shared fence with your neighbor, know the local zoning ordinances that govern fence construction. These will be available at your local zoning commission or Department of Public Works. For example, the height of a fence in Baton Rouge is limited by its location on the property and the material used in its construction. Woven wire fences less than four feet high, and fences made of more solid material less than three feet high, may be built on any part of a lot, provided they are not within thirty feet of a street intersection. Fences eight feet high or less, however, may be built on those parts of a lot which are at least as far back from the street as the required front and side building lines. The actual ordinances are very specific–covering specific construction details–and can give exceptions, so carefully consult your local ordinances. (There will usually be specific regulations governing fences around a lot with a pool, for example, requiring a minimum height and a maximum gate size.)
You may be able to obtain an exception to local fencing laws. For example, fences built before the passage of the law are usually considered exempt. If you have or wish to build a fence contrary to the law, you can also apply for a variance–a one-time exception granted by the city. You are most likely to receive a variance when you can show compelling evidence that the fence is necessary to protect your property, such as a fence constructed to combat noise pollution. In Baton Rouge, contact the Permit and Inspection Division of the Department of Public Works about obtaining a variance.
While most people are happy to put in the time and effort to maintain their own property, shared property can be a source of conflict. Boundary fences – fences on the property line between two lots – are held to be owned by both neighbors when they both use the fence. “Use” here is defined differently from state to state. Sometimes, it is based on who has made use of the land up to the fence. Other times, it is based on who has “connected” a non-boundary fence to it.
In Louisiana, a boundary fence is presumed to be common unless there is proof to the contrary. This means that both neighbors are responsible for keeping the fence in good repair and in compliance with zoning ordinances. If the adjoining lots are enclosed (by a fence), then one property owner may legally require his neighbor to contribute to the cost of repairing the fence. If the adjoining lots are not enclosed, then the neighbor will be responsible only for what is prescribed by local ordinances. It is possible for two neighbors to come to a different agreement regarding shared responsibility, if they both wish. Such an agreement, though, applies only to the two landowners who signed onto it; it does not carry over to the next person to occupy one of the lots.
What are your options if a neighbor doesn’t contribute to the repair or upkeep of the fence? The easiest solution is to discuss this issue with your neighbor and try to come to an equitable solution. If that is not possible, you have several options. You may be able to request the permit and inspection agency to send an inspector who can make an official determination that work needs to be done. If doing so is possible, it may help support your claim. You have the option of proceeding with the work, then demanding payment from the neighbor. Typically, you would first ask for payment in a letter. If payment is not forthcoming, you may sue for reimbursement. Although most people would rather comply with the law and handle things on a “neighbor to neighbor” basis, this isn’t always possible. Be familiar with your local laws regarding fences.
Although the laws regarding fences may seem complex, they exist for a good reason. These laws help ensure that our property is respected. They also help make sure our obligations to our neighbors, and the city we live in, are clear. Making sure that your construction plans comply with the law is the best way to insure that they serve their purpose of being useful and attractive.