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Zoning law could scale down wall heights

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  • | 5:00 a.m. November 29, 2012
A solid wall stands next to a wrought-iron fence. Many residents have chosen the type of front-yard fence shown on the left that people can see through.
A solid wall stands next to a wrought-iron fence. Many residents have chosen the type of front-yard fence shown on the left that people can see through.
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A contrast is noticeable as one drives or walks through the Hudson Bayou neighborhood.

In the residential neighborhood, which is located near Sarasota Memorial Hospital, some front yards showcase small picket or wrought-iron fences. The most common is a picket fence about 4 feet high and set back a few feet from the sidewalk.

However, some of the newer, larger homes in the neighborhood feature solid walls built 6 feet high and located right up against the sidewalk.

The height and type of walls and fences being built has caused conflicts between neighbors — particularly in the south-of-downtown neighborhoods of Hudson Bayou, Harbor Acres and Southside Village, and across the bay on St. Armands Key, where taller walls have sprung up as new homes are built.

These walls contrast with older, smaller homes and bungalows.

Currently, there is little regulation of the fences and walls that can be built in the front yard of a home, as long as they are less than 6 feet high.

The city recently hired a consultant to draft a zoning law that would regulate the way front-yard walls and fences are built within residential neighborhoods.

City Commissioner Terry Turner said his concern is the wall problem could proliferate.

“If it were only one house, it is not a problem, but if you imagine a street where every house has one, it changes the character of the city,” Turner said. ‘The model for new urbanism is an interesting, walkable city, and walking on the sidewalk with a big wall is not very attractive.”

In Hudson Bayou and Harbor Acres, several of the newer homes drew the ire of neighbors who thought the solid walls created a walled-in feeling as one walked down the sidewalk.

Karin Murphy, a former redevelopment specialist with the city of Sarasota, was hired to help draft a possible “zoning text amendment.” Murphy has been gathering feedback from residents, and, in February, she plans to have a draft of the proposed zoning change ready go to the City Commission for final approval in early summer.

“People might say, ‘Why worry about stuff like that?’” Murphy said. “But it can make a huge difference.”

Murphy said safety also becomes an issue with solid walls and fences, because there are fewer “eyes on the street” when the solid walls and fences shutter a home from the street and sidewalk.

But Murphy cautions against a one-size-fits-all approach. For instance, even solid walls can be made tolerable by setting them back farther, adding landscaping and, most importantly, integrating openings in the wall to allow people to see in and out. Murphy also wants homeowners to have some leeway to be creative. Murphy has been out talking to residents and taking city commissioners on separate driving tours to point out problem areas with fences, walls and signs.

On a similar tour with a reporter Monday, Nov. 26, Murphy drove past several Hudson Bayou homes with yards blocked from the sidewalk by a solid walls.

“There is some concern about mass and appeal,” Murphy said about the walls.

It can get confusing, Murphy notes, when a property’s backyard faces a well-traversed pedestrian street. In those cases, the question of privacy comes into the mix.

As for establishing guidelines regulating what owners can put in their front yard, Turner is confident something can be drawn up.

“We want to come up with some standards on how big and where the walls can be placed, so we can manage it a bit,” Turner said. “So people don’t have big barren walls right next to the sidewalk.”


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