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July 15, 2013

Residents affected by fencing ordinance share stories

By Robert Guttersohn
C & G Staff Writer

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Residents affected by fencing ordinance share stories
Jennifer Schneider-Medina and Francisco Medina stand July 9 before the flowerbed they placed at the corner of their property after the city said they must move their fence away from the intersection of the sidewalk and their neighbor’s driveway. Between the required permits and parts, it cost the couple $200 to make their fence compliant with Royal Oak law.
Ann O’Keefe, a medical technician, stands near a Beaumont Hospital bike rack July 11. She used to bike to work until being struck last summer by a driver backing out of a driveway whose view was obstructed by a fence.
 

Meet the Medinas.

Eight years after moving into their corner home near Sunnybrook Park, the city sent the married couple a letter in April saying a portion of their fence, built about 20 years earlier, was in violation of a city ordinance and needed to be altered within 18 days.

“They are making us pay for something that’s been up since before we bought this house,” Jennifer Schneider-Medina said recently.

Now, meet Ann O’Keefe.

O’Keefe has been a medical technician at Beaumont Hospital for 25 years. She used to bike to work until one day last summer when a car backing out of its driveway near Coolidge Road struck her bike. O’Keefe was thrown to the pavement and cut her chin, a wound that required four stitches to close.

“Gosh, if I had been a little kid on a big wheeler or a tricycle, she would have never seen me,” O’Keefe said, looking back on that day.

O’Keefe and the Medinas represent the two sides of the fence ordinance debate, and as the City Commission weighs options to try and appease both sides, they are a microcosm of why doing so is so difficult.

On one end is the safety of pedestrians. On the other end is working with homeowners who have moved into homes with noncompliant fences built decades beforehand.

The fence ordinance, in existence for decades, requires that fences along driveways be removed or shortened to no taller than 36 inches while within 10 feet of a public sidewalk and driveway intersection.

City officials have said that, for some reason, the ordinance had not been enforced for years. It wasn’t until recently that someone within City Hall realized that because the law is a police-power ordinance — as opposed to a zoning ordinance — it cannot be grandfathered in.

The City Commission has most recently requested that the administration look into alternative solutions to the problem and has since suspended enforcement of it. Initially, it requested a response from the city for the July 8 meeting, but City Manager Don Johnson said in a memo to the commission that it needed more time.

“I have asked the Traffic Improvement Association to do research into these and perhaps other less costly methods in which we can make the public sidewalks safer by eliminating the obstruction to the drivers’ vision,” he wrote. “At this time, the report from them has not been received.”

He went on to write that the city’s staff will be better prepared to present a full report at the Aug. 12 meeting.

The commission has discussed cheaper alternatives, like the addition of mirrors, an alarm that goes off when a car is backing out, or even just a sign announcing a hidden driveway.

But to O’Keefe, the only scenario in which both the pedestrian and the driver can see one another is if a fence is either removed or cut to three feet. She said any alternative is putting weight unevenly on the pedestrian to be more aware.

“It’s kind of putting the responsibility back on the pedestrian, as opposed to the person in the vehicle,” she said.

O’Keefe had been riding her bike to work for a couple of years up until the accident. She admits that before the incident, she realized how dangerous it was to be riding by the particular home where she was struck, because there was no way a driver could have seen her coming.

After the stitches were in place, she had to get an MRI done and had to have follow-ups with an oral surgeon to make sure her jaw was healing properly.

Now, she walks to work.

“I sure don’t want that to happen again,” she said.

She is also now aware that riding her bicycle on city sidewalks is not allowed, but still she said it wouldn’t have made a difference.

“I know the law says you shouldn’t ride your bike on the sidewalk, but the reality of it is, people do,” she said. “And even if I had been a pedestrian, she would have hit me. I was riding slow.”

Despite the commission seeking ways to work with homeowners by waiving permit fees required to have their fences altered or removing the fees to plead their cases in front of the Zoning Board of Appeals, for many homeowners, it’s too late. Like the Medinas, they’ve already made the changes.

After receiving their notice of violation in April, the couple called the city to see what their options were and how they could fight the violation.

“They were nice, but it was pretty much just fix the fence or else,” Jennifer Schneider-Medina said. “And we really didn’t want to fight City Hall.”

Francisco Medina said the notice shocked him, especially since two summers ago, when they added a deck, the city worker who inspected it said nothing about their fence.

Francisco Medina also couldn’t believe the short timeframe the city gave them, despite it being early spring.

“Who in their right mind is going to try digging a 40-inch-deep hole when the ground is frozen?” he remembered questioning.

Despite their complaints, $200 later, their property is in compliance.

“The modifications do make sense — for safety,” Francisco Medina admitted.

“But there should be a grandfather clause or something,” his wife added.

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Robert Guttersohn at rguttersohn@candgnews.com or at (586)218-5006.