please fence me in
May 28, 2010 5:38 AM   Subscribe

Our Portland OR house from 1924 is on a double lot, so we don't have a 'back' yard, we have a 'side' yard. The neighboring house from 1925 was built directly on the property line, as verified by surveyor and plat maps. That side of their house contains a window that can't see anywhere but into our yard, and a gas meter that the gas company needs access to. We're in fence building mode, and aren't sure where to put the fence, or how high it can be.

I'm awaiting word from the gas company regarding what sort of access we need to allow them, and we've planted tall bamboo to provide a little privacy without walling off the neighbor's windows. But when it comes to actually sinking posts and getting the fence started, I'm not sure what to do.

How far away from their house do we need to make the fence? Does the fence need to step away from the house to provide access to the meter reader? (I don't mind if they come into our yard to read the neighbor's meter.) Are we required to give them some sort of easement, since they're sort of "grandfathered in" to place?

And finally, the city has different rules for the height of front yard fences and back yard fences. Our nominal 'back' yard abuts the same road the front of our house does. Do we treat it like a 'back' yard, or should we try to get a permit that specifically authorizes a 'backyard'-type fence along that stretch? (That could turn around and bite us.)
posted by foobario to Home & Garden (11 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
If you don't mind that the gas reader comes in your yard, then:
1) build a fence front-yard height up to the corner of the neighbor's house.
2) build a fence back-yard height from the back corner of his house to the back of the property.

Use the neighbor's house, with the bamboo shielding the window, as part of your fence. It's more organic looking, it's much less a pain in the ass if they need to access their foundation or the low part of the wall (i.e. tuckpointing, siding).

(note that I fucking hate fences, both from an aesthetic and a human perspective. They reinforce the notion of our neighbors as "other". My parents put up a 6-foot on one side to hide us from the crazy neighbor, and it really made me feel like our back yard was a prison.)
posted by notsnot at 5:48 AM on May 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

Such things are pretty common in older neighborhoods. Our driveway is partly on one neighbour's property, as the other neighbour's driveway is on ours, because the houses are 25' wide, centred on 40' lots and, well, you can't park a car on 7.5 feet of space. What makes these things work is communication among the neighbours. We use some of the neighbour's yard for our car on one side, and on the other side they use our lot for some trash cans and oddments.

Anyway, what I'm saying is that lot lines on paper are kind of a fallback position. You should talk to your neighbour and describe your need for a fence and how it might affect their window. Only if they're obstreperous about your desired plan should you need to figure out laws and stuff.

Really -- communication is the key here. "Hey, we want to build a fence on my property, but I see you have this window, so here's a couple ideas I have to make it better for you. What do you think?"

The gas meter shouldn't be a problem; the gas company goes in yards all the time, they can go in your yard to read the neighbours's meter.
posted by seanmpuckett at 5:51 AM on May 28, 2010

I found this (.pdf) from Portland about fence building which says: "The front building setback is the side that borders a street and is usually deeper than the side and rear setbacks. On a corner lot, the front lot line is the shortest side of the lot bordering a street. If street frontages are equal in length, you can choose which to call the front. On a through lot, both parts of the lot that border a street are the front."
posted by ghharr at 5:56 AM on May 28, 2010

Another thing to consider is if your home is in a designated historic area, you may need to apply for a permit/follow guidelines established by the historic preservation authority for building a fence--and maybe even for landscaping (materials that can be used, native plants, etc). I'm on the East coast and it seems pretty normal that fences that are visible from the sidewalk need to have a certain aesthetic in historic preservation districts and there are definite limitations on what type of plants can be used. So, check it out before you build. Good luck!
posted by FergieBelle at 5:56 AM on May 28, 2010

I'd phone the city permitting office for answers for height and setback requirements, they have a definitive answer. Around here your back yard adjacent to a street would be classified as equivalent to a front yard (and there would be extra special restrictions on the fence on the intersecting corner) Personally I'd allow at least a meter or even 1.5 metres clearance between the fence and the house otherwise you'll be looking at a house that can't be properly maintained. Doing so practically secede that property to your neighbours though.

As to meter reading access; really all the reader needs is to be able to see the dials which can be satisfied with a small hole. However you really should leave unobstructed access to the gas shutoff (for your own safety even if you don't care about your neighbours). Also meters need to be replaced every ten years and the workers need access to the meter at that time. If there wasn't at least a metre of clear space around the meter I'd design the fence panel at that location to be easily removed or install a gate.

If the goal of the fence is to contain your yard rather than privacy I'd talk to your neighbour about just connecting your fence to his house at each end. Actually I'd talk to your neighbour anyways; best case they may pay for half the installation costs in exchange for a say in it's construction.
posted by Mitheral at 5:56 AM on May 28, 2010

Go to and look up your house. Look under assessor or maps tab and find your zone - it'll say something like R5 or R7. Click on that for your basic lot info. Fence height for side and back yards are generally 6 feet. Your side yard fence can start at the front yard setback - you can't go all the way to the front prop line with a six foot fence.

Now your placement is another issue - your first question is what you can legally do. Your second question is what you should do. I think in these cases, you come to a neighborly agreement. We have a meandering side yard fence on our property due to how our house is sited and also the location of a mature cherry tree. It's the result of an agreement between one of the former owners and my neighbor. If I wanted to change the fence, I would need to get an agreement with the neighbor though i don't know how formal it needs to be.

Once you've looked up your lot info, call the planning office and leave a message with your address, lot number and question - they will get back to you. Above all, be a good neighbor!
posted by amanda at 8:52 AM on May 28, 2010

I would be careful about stepping your fence back from their house (and your property line) without talking to a real estate lawyer, because you are (might be?) creating an "assumed property line" -- i.e. potentially giving away that portion of your lot to your neighbor. (IANAL)
posted by misterbrandt at 9:01 AM on May 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

Contact your city planning department. You pay taxes so they can serve you.
posted by Beardsley Klamm at 9:38 AM on May 28, 2010

Maybe your neighbor would be interested in buying a strip of land from you--2, 3, or 4 feet?

That would give you money and maybe both of you better options for fencing etc.
posted by flug at 10:09 AM on May 28, 2010

I've got a similar situation on my lot. When I built the house, I had to agree to a 6 foot easement. Meaning I had to allow my neighbour access to 6 ft of my property so they could maintain their siding, etc. I just built a fence up to the corner of their house, and told them they could come into my yard if they need to do anything to the house.
posted by blue_beetle at 11:16 AM on May 28, 2010

I'm not sure if you'd need to provide an easement so your neighbor's meter can be read. Your deed/title should tell you all of the easements currently established on your land.

I'm a little confused about your plan though.
Are you wanting to block your neighbors view, or just contain your yard?

If it's the latter, why not use your house and their house as the two ends of the fence and build a fence that attaches directly to both?
If you set an actual fence far enough back from your lot line for a meter reader, you may be setting up adverse possession situation (though Oregon has some quirks in that law).

I'd bet that the city will consider your side lot a front lot for purposes of fence height and setback, but your best bet is to call the permit office and ask them, that way there are no expensive fence rebuilds in your future.
posted by madajb at 11:24 AM on May 28, 2010

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