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Fence-gate

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Jacob S. Johnson had to expect as much.

The Watertown resident failed Wednesday to persuade the city’s Zoning Board of Appeals to grant a variance for the chain-link fence surrounding his side yard on the 200 block of Mullin Street. He constructed the fence in August without a permit and knew that it violated city code; the ZBA voted 3-0 against a variance.

In 2011, members of the City Council amended the fence ordinance after a Haley Street resident said that a fence put up by her neighbor obstructed her view of the street as well as oncoming traffic. This, she said, meant she could not back out of her driveway safely.

The council revised the ordinance to prohibit fences less than 20 feet from the street and, simultaneously, less than 5 feet from an adjacent driveway. And all chain-link fences must be at least 20 feet from the street.

The black chain-link fence on Mr. Johnson’s property encloses an in-ground pool with a waterfall, a spacious patio area, decorative stone and elaborate landscaping. The presence of a pool makes some kind of fencing necessary. And as the owner of Jake’s Landscaping & Lawn Care in Watertown, he knows a thing or two about sprucing up side yards.

But Mr. Johnson did all this with the understanding that the city may demand he alter the fence. He wanted to make a point about the need for more flexibility in the city code.

“At the meeting, he contended that it would be a hardship to remove it, citing security reasons for his family and for the pool,” according to an article published in Thursday’s issue of the Watertown Daily Times. “Mr. Johnson also argued there was not enough room to place it with the 20-foot rule, claiming the fence then would be ‘at the water’s edge.’ The three ZBA members disagreed.”

In refuting Mr. Johnson’s declaration that altering the fence around his side yard would be a hardship, ZBA Chairwoman Virginia R. Burdick told him, “This is self-created hardship.” She’s correct.

The ZBA had no choice but to rule against Mr. Johnson. Residents can’t knowingly undertake work done illegally and then complain about the burden of making it legal.

But Mr. Johnson also intends to continue pushing members of the City Council to change the fence ordinance. The ordinance was changed in 2011 because a resident couldn’t see oncoming traffic through a wooden fence.

But chain-link fences are different in that they offer much greater visibility. As such, it’s not unreasonable to treat them differently than other fences.

Most “City Council members have said they do not believe the fence ordinance should be changed on behalf of Mr. Johnson since he was told the fence would be in violation and built it anyway,” according to Thursday’s story in the Times. They shouldn’t change the ordinance merely to appease Mr. Johnson. They should change it because such revisions would make sense.

Even if the ordinance is altered, Mr. Johnson should be penalized in some way for disregarding city code. But this doesn’t mean that others who wish to construct chain-link fences should be punished along with him.

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