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Southampton law spurs faceoff over fences

Shown is an aerial view of the Noyac

Shown is an aerial view of the Noyac Bay, left, Sag Harbor and Paynes Creek (right), from the West facing East, Tuesday June 15, 2010. The Southampton Town board is trying to regulate six foot tall fences that go up in the yards of houses on waterfront property. Because of a quirk in town regulations, the street side of a property is the rear yard if the house faces the water, which� means the 6 foot fence is allowed by law. Julie Penny says the town's precious water views are being lost. (photo by Kevin P. Coughlin) Photo Credit: KEVIN P. COUGHLIN

In tony Southampton, good fences are making for bad neighbors.

A quirky section of town law that regulates where fences can be placed for some houses on the water has led to a proliferation of high fences on the street.

Basically, the law says that for any home on a pond, lake or bay the front of the house faces the water.

That means the back of the house faces the street, and homeowners can put up a 6-foot fence between the house and the street, right on the property line. As a result, people are starting to complain that some roads are lined with so many fences you can't see the water, or pull your car off the road in an emergency.

Houses that face the Atlantic Ocean are an exception. Their backyard faces the ocean, and they need to get a special permit before putting a high fence up between the house and the street. Many do just that.

The problem came up a week ago when the town board held a hearing on a proposal to change its zoning code so that waterfront houses could no longer put up a 6-foot fence directly on the property line facing the street. Instead, they would have to put it five feet back from the road, and screen it with plantings. That way, drivers would have enough room to pull off in an emergency without hitting a fence, and the street side would look more attractive.

"These solid 6-foot fences are totally changing the character of these neighborhoods . . . they're aesthetically appalling," wrote the Noyack Citizen Advisory Committee. "What limited water views the residents have will disappear."

Julie Penny, who lives on Noyack Road, said her road is designated as a scenic corridor, but does not have the legal protection of being a formal scenic overlay district. The designation means the town believes the road is in a particularly scenic area, but without the overlay district designation, there are no special rules to protect the views.

"It's an issue that's ruining Noyack," she said of the fence problem. "It's a serious situation. We're losing it [the views] so quickly."

Penny said she is seeing similar problems in Bridgehampton, where tall hedges are being planted along Scuttlehole Road, blocking the view of the rolling farmlands.

"First came the fences, then came the hedges, then came the big trees that block the views," she said. "It's like driving with blinders on."

It is, she recalled, a far cry from the magical vistas she used to see on Scuttlehole Road, where horses ran through the mist in the early morning and time seemed to stand still.

The law governing fences would not apply to most of Scuttlehole Road, which is not on a lake or stream.

Not everyone in Southampton supports the change. Especially those who have fences.

Michael Garrett, who lives on Shinnecock Bay in Shinnecock Hills, stood at his fence on Friday and listened as it barely muffled the noise of the cars and trucks that sped by on Montauk Highway.

"If we had to go back five feet, we would lose these two trees," he said. He would also lose a little alley next to his house which is just big enough to park a car on his shallow lot.

Garrett would not have to take down the fence to conform to the proposed town code, which would apply only to new fences put up. But the fence already has been knocked down twice by cars, and if it gets knocked down again, he would have to comply with any new town zoning code.

Garrett said he understood the town's desire to make roads safer and improve the scenic vistas by moving back fences and giving cars room to pull off the road, but not in every situation.

"Like most other things, it makes sense and then they apply it to where it makes no sense," he said.

Southampton Supervisor Anna Throne Holst said the board generally agreed that the loss of scenic views was becoming a problem, and added that the specific zone change being proposed was an attempt to move fences back from the edge of the road, to make it slightly more attractive and less of a safety hazard.

She and other board members noted there have been complaints that drivers have no way to get off the road in case of an emergency. There were also some complaints that the big fences can create drainage problems, especially brick walls or concrete walls with footings.

Under the current town law, property owners could just as easily put up a 6-foot brick wall or a solid cement retaining wall, which can interfere with the flow of rainwater and create flooding problems.

After discussion, the board adjourned its hearing, and expects to bring the proposed fence code change back up for discussion at its next regular meeting on Tuesday.

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