City looks at rules on fences in easements

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GREENFIELD — The city is aiming to simplify the process by which homeowners seek approval to build structures in the city’s utility easements, and officials are bracing for push-back from homeowners.

Greenfield planning director Joanie Fitzwater said many people don’t understand, when they purchase a house, that the property comes with utility easements. The city’s code originally disallowed people from placing fences in a utility easement, Fitzwater said, but it was revised in the 1990s to allow homeowners to do so with permission from the city.

That change, she said, has led over the years to both the Greenfield Board of Works and the planning and zoning staff being inundated with requests for exemptions to utility easement rules. To get permission, homeowners would have to make their case to the members of the board of works.

“That has gotten to be extremely onerous, and it was the only requirement in the code that offered an immediate relief from the requirement if you went to the board of works,” Fitzwater said. “…We didn’t know why we were giving special, automatic dispensation to fence encroachments. It doesn’t follow the procedure we use for every other bit of code.”

Homeowners would still be able to appeal the decision to the board of works if permission was denied. They would need an exception from both the board of works and the Greenfield Board of Zoning Appeals.

Fitzwater said there are already many fences in town that are violating the current policy and were erected in easements where they shouldn’t be. To deal with that, she said, planning department employees plan to survey the city neighborhood by neighborhood and send letters to homeowners whose fences are in violation telling them that they need to be taken down.

This process will mostly apply to newer subdivisions, she said, because it would be difficult to prove whether the construction was permitted or not.

Fitzwater said the current policy has created too many exceptions, and the city’s utility departments have requested that structures not be allowed in their easements. When an easement with a fence or structure on it is needed, she said, the process of taking it down creates extra work for city employees.

“They’re not required to, but they try really hard to make sure they don’t damage the fence that they’re taking down, and then, you know, they inevitably end up putting it back up because they’re nice guys,” she said.

To standardize the easement policy, Fitzwater wants to remove such cases from consideration by the board of works. Instead, if a homeowner wants to build something in a utility easement, the planning department would determine whether that space is being used by any of the city’s utility departments. If it’s not, planning employees would be able to sign off on an agreement with the property owner to allow them to build.

“If there is a utility in the easement, this new code will say ‘you cannot do it, in any way, shape, or form,’” she said. “So it’s going to make a lot of people unhappy, and we’re going to have a fun time trying to decide who already has a fence in the easement, and is it grandfathered in, or who’s under the new code?”

Adopting the new code, Fitzwater said, would mean that no one would be able to put up a fence in a section of easement a utility department is using, even if their next-door neighbor already has one.

The new code would also require owners to prove that they know where their property lines and property corners are when applying to put up a fence or structure. Property owners would also need to sign an agreement stating their addition could be removed with two days’ notice, or with no notice in an emergency.

Charles Gill, the city’s water utility manager, said structures placed in easements are common in some sections of Greenfield, especially older areas. Working around or dismantling those structures when utility work needs to be done can present a significant complication, Gill said, especially when emergency repairs are needed, like in the case of a water main break.

“It could actually end up being the cause of damage in some cases,” he said.

Gill said his department frequently works with homeowners to find the best way for them to place a structure without restricting easement access. He said he thinks it makes sense.

The changes to the zoning code passed the city council last week on first reading with a vote of 4-1. It will come up for a final vote at the city council’s next meeting.

Council member John Jester voted against the change but said his objection was to the city aiming to take down fences that have already been built regardless of whether they are in the way of a current project.

“I have no problem going forward with everybody having to do the proper process, and I don’t have a problem if there’s a fence in an easement, go in and remove that,” Jester said. “But I don’t know if we should be proactively policing everybody’s fence right now that’s already installed, without an issue.”