Geneva aldermen consider code change to allow fence height increase to 48 inches from 42

Ald. Bruno: ‘If I had my druthers, if you couldn’t step over it, there shouldn’t be a fence in the front yard’

Geneva aldermen discussed changing the maximum height of fences to 48 inches from 42 inches at a special Committee of the Whole meeting. Staff will bring recommendations for code amendments at a future meeting.

GENEVA – Geneva aldermen will be considering a proposal to increase the maximum fence height to 48 inches from 42 inches for yards that face the street, following discussion at a special Committee of the Whole.

Community Development Director David DeGroot said staff wanted feedback on the allowable height of fences in the street yard – that is, anything that is forward of the house – noting that corner lots have two street yards.

Aldermen discussed the issue for nearly two hours at the special meeting June 27 on whether the height should be regulated differently in corner lots than interior lots, fence requirements around swimming pools and how fences should be regulated on the rear yards of through lots.

DeGroot said they would work within the parameters of what the aldermen wanted and bring clarifications to the code before them at a later date.

“I do think it needs to be clarified,” DeGroot said.

Currently, fences can be six feet tall on side and rear yards in residential neighborhoods, and the pool and spa code require a minimum height of four feet around a swimming pool, DeGroot said.

“What are some of the reasons people want fences in the street yard,” DeGroot said. “It can just be aesthetics, decorative. It can increase the utility of a yard, provide security, provide some privacy.”

But some of the concerns with fences in the street yard comes down to aesthetics, he said.

“It can be viewed as a disruption of the public realm – kind of walling off of the community,” DeGroot said. “Not all fences are maintained equally. We have some issues with paint or stain. We’ve heard over the years that the 42-inch height is kind of a unique height and not readily available at all retailers and sometimes they cost more.”

And then there is the conflict of requiring a 48-inch fence around a pool but only 42 inches in the street yard, he said.

DeGroot presented neighboring communities’ fence requirements, including that St. Charles, West Chicago, Glen Ellyn and Lombard have 48 inches as the maximum.

Naperville allows 48 inches for fences that are 30% open to allow views, but otherwise, the maximum is 36 inches, according to staff research.

Batavia and North Aurora allow 36 inches in the front street yard and 48 inches in the corner street yard.

Fourth Ward Alderman Gabriel Kaven said he did not have a problem with increasing the allowable fence height to 48 inches. Fifth Ward Alderman Robert Swanson agreed.

“Relaxing that to 48 inches makes sense,” Swanson said. “It offers the residents more choices and certainly better economic choices, so I would support changing that for the front.”

But 1st Ward Alderman MIchael Bruno said he was not inclined to support an increase in fence height.

“If I had my druthers, if you couldn’t step over it, there shouldn’t be a fence in the front yard,” Bruno said. “I think it really disrupts the community, blocks things off.”

Fifth Ward Alderman Craig Maladra said anyone looking out their backyard window has a reasonable expectation to see a fence or a wall.

“But I don’t know how many people have that expectation to have their view impeded by a solid structure from their living room or their front yard,” Maladra said. “The difference between 42 and 48 inches – I don’t know. I would say the difference between [basketball players] Michael Jordan and Patrick Ewing (is) you know when you see them, one’s a lot bigger than the other one.”

Fourth Ward Alderwoman Amy Mayer said she did not support going more than 42 inches in the front yard or the street yard – but she would go along with a plan like Naperville’s, which allowed a 48-inch fence if it is 30% open.

“I think it changes the dynamic of that six-inch difference enough that it makes sense to me to do that,” Mayer said.

But for 2nd Ward Alderman Bradley Kosirog, the fence issue is tied into the aesthetics of Geneva itself.

“I have a feeling that’s where the 42 inches came from,” Kosirog said. “I do not think we should have tall fences that you can’t see through in our front yards.”

However, Kosirog said he could support a 48 inch fence in the side yard with no more than 30% of it opaque.

Kosirog said he wanted the fence around pools issue to be resolved so that residents don’t have to seek variances because of a conflicting code.

Third Ward Alderwoman Becky Hruby, however, said when people say they don’t like tall fences, it makes her think “we’re saying we don’t like oak trees, so you can no longer have an oak tree in your yard.”

“I think that’s absurd,” Hruby said. “We can’t impose our preferences on our entire community. For me, the 42 or the 48 is irrelevant. … I don’t think anyone’s even going to notice. I don’t think – aesthetically – 42 versus 48 makes a big difference.”

Hruby said an open fence versus a privacy fence makes a difference aesthetically, but, “City Council should not be mandating what type of fence people are allowed to put up.”

Kosirog countered that it means Hruby would support a six-foot privacy fence in a front yard.

“How many people do you think would really do that?” Hruby asked.

“But that’s not the point, is it? We make ordinances so that we follow some continuity through the city,” Kosirog said. “So do we want six-foot privacy fences in our front yards?”

“I wouldn’t want that. But I don’t think it’s my place to tell every homeowner in our city that they cannot have that because I don’t like it,” Hruby responded.

“I disagree. I think that’s why we’re here, as a matter of fact, to help make these decisions for our community,” Kosirog said.