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Woodside: Fencing setbacks debated

A passionate three-hour conversation about fence regulations? It happened in Independence Hall in Woodside before the Town Council on July 8, and not a seat was left unfilled.

Current fence regulations do not advance Woodside's rural character, some residents say. Fences that were set back farther from the road, they point out, would enhance rural sensibility and provide passage and privacy for wildlife. Other residents say that fence regulations are fine as they are.

The two sides met for the July 8 study session on a proposal by the town's Open Space Committee to revise the fence regulations. Most of the speakers opposed changing the regulations.

Woodside's general plan favors fences that are "wildlife-friendly and avoid creating visual walls and tunnel effects along roadways." In an effort to align the town's regulations with the general plan, the Open Space Committee's proposal would increase setbacks along roads and between properties, but only for new fences and only on properties larger than three acres. Existing fences would be grandfathered in.

The proposal would:

■ Double the setbacks for 4-foot "open" perimeter fences to 20 feet along a public road and 10 feet along a private road. A three-rail fence is an open fence, as are posts with wire mesh between them.

■ Increase by one-third the setbacks for "open" perimeter fences higher than 4 feet along a public road -- to 30 feet from the current 20 feet.

■ Establish 20-foot setbacks for "open" fences higher than 4 feet and located between properties, with 50-foot setbacks for walls and fences not considered open and higher than 4 feet.

In preparing its proposal, the committee reviewed regulations in Portola Valley, Saratoga, Monte Sereno, Los Altos Hills and Los Gatos, according to a staff report.

Rural or suburban?

If the proposal had been a clay pigeon, comments by speakers at the meeting would have shattered it on the first shot and then atomized it with succeeding shots into its dusty corpse.

"I think we're fooling ourselves if we think that Woodside is totally rural," said Geri Wohl of Miramontes Road. "We're in the suburbs." Deer-proof fences, she said, can minimize the presence of deer ticks, a menace to children and pets.

"My property," said Karin Friedrichs, "although I love wildlife, is not for the use of wildlife."

A resident of Kings Mountain Road said that "not everybody moved here because we like wildlife." Some came for the schools, the friends and proximity to the Bay Area, he said.

The Peninsula Open Space Trust exists to create open space, said Richard Draeger. Humans with nefarious intentions can also use wildlife corridors, he added.

Former mayor Paul Goeld said the argument is really about aesthetics. "There's a lot of things in town that offend me," he said. "There's a neighbor that has a topiary garden in his front yard that just sucks. ... You shouldn't be changing the rules unless there's a hardship or a clearly compelling reason. ... It's just not something that the citizens want."

Contact between domestic and wild animals should be limited, said Joel Butler. He's had three pets "devoured" in the last year, he said. "It makes people feel less safe in our own homes," he said. "Please let us keep the security we currently have and allow others to do the same. ... I'm tired of cleaning up blood and guts and fur."

Fentress Hall of the Livestock and Equestrian Heritage Committee advocated for lower fences and higher technology. Electric wires, she said, present a reduced visual impact and can be effectively targeted at a particular species.

Council responds

Study sessions should be for gathering information, not considering proposals, said Councilwoman Deborah Gordon. And, she added, setting categorical rules doesn't make sense in Woodside a community in which properties differ widely in topology, stream corridors, fault lines and land stability. "We aren't a planned community," she said. "We don't have one-acre parcels laid out neatly on a flat place."

The discussion should also include other concerns in the general plan, such as pets, security and safety, she said.

Councilman Peter Mason said that acreage is just one factor of several factors to use in setting fencing regulations. "What is the problem we're trying to solve?" he asked. The answer could lead to discovering other factors, he said.

Mayor Dave Burow wondered how to achieve wildlife corridors without strict setback requirements. "It would be nice to have more attractive fencing, but I don't think we can legislate that," he said.

If the fence proposal seems progressive in tone, it may be because volunteers tend to be more progressive than people who don't volunteer, Mr. Burow added.

The discussion did result in a few ideas, including engaging a wildlife biologist, collecting data on wildlife, limiting effects on small-property fences and focusing on large-property fences. And having more study sessions.

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