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Planning Commission recommends denial for north Brainerd fence variance

North Brainerd homeowners are squabbling over a partially constructed 6-foot tall fence on a corner lot.

A fence under construction.
A fence between two properties in north Brainerd sits unfinished Thursday, July 21, 2022, as the permit is in dispute.
Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch
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BRAINERD — Brainerd Planning Commission members recommended denial of a variance for a fence causing strife between neighbors in north Brainerd.

The four commissioners present at the meeting Wednesday, July 20, opposed a variance that would allow a 6-foot high fence to extend to the edge of the sidewalk at 401 Holly St.

The home, owned by Kelsie Randall and Jessie Hartman, is a corner lot, with the backyard abutting the front yard of Chuck Marohn’s house at 616 N. Fourth St.

Randall and Hartman received a permit earlier this year to construct a 6-foot fence in their backyard, replacing a smaller fence. The permit issued allowed the fence to be in line with the front facade of the house, which was roughly 13 feet from the property line near the sidewalk.

That guideline was not in line with the city’s zoning code at the time, though, as fences taller than 4 feet had stricter setback requirements. While the council recently approved a new zoning code that would allow for the fence in that location, that updated code was not yet in place.

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Marohn brought these concerns to city staff and council members, as the new fence obstructed the view from a portion of his front yard, and he said Hartman and Randall trespassed on his property to build it.

Community Development Director James Kramvik admitted Wednesday night the city issued the permit in error. The city should have required a 20-foot setback from the property line for a 6-foot fence. The permit also should have required a signature from Marohn, as the abutting property owner, to give his consent to the property-line fence.

With the permit issued, though, Randall and Hartman believed they had the appropriate authorization to construct their fence. While the city has not rescinded their permit, Kramvik said it does not meet the requirements of the code under which it was issued.

Work has since ceased on the fence, leaving the corner lot homeowners with an incomplete fence and already purchased materials, and leaving Marohn with a structure he said is disruptive and would require further trespassing on his property to finish.

Marohn asserts part of the fence is on his property and requires Randall and Hartman to be on his property to build it, though city staff surveyed the land using Crow Wing County property information to direct Randall on the placement of the fence, which she said is 3 feet into her property line. Marohn, however, pointed to a disclaimer on the county’s website noting the data provided does not have guaranteed accuracy.Randall said she agreed to pay for a professional land survey and will move the fence if the outcome shows different property lines.

The variance

Hartman said during Wednesday’s meeting they requested the variance so they can complete the 6-foot fence in the existing footprint of the smaller fence. Not letting them complete the fence, he said, would be aesthetically displeasing to the rest of the neighborhood. There are other 6-foot fences in the neighborhood, he said, and it would only make the neighborhood look better.

Holly Street fence
A Google maps image shows a fence around the backyard of the home of Kelsie Randall and Jessie Hartman. Because the house is on a corner lot, the backyard fence abuts the side yard of neighbor Chuck Marohn.
Screenshot

“If our neighbor could find it in himself to calm down and think about this, he will find that this variance request is also beneficial to him and will improve the appearance of his yard,” Hartman said.

The point of the higher fence, Hartman and Randall said, is to improve the safety and privacy for their family and pets, as the corner lot gets overflow parking from the hospital on both sides, giving the homeowners little to no privacy. Ending the fence partway through the yard, they added, would create awkward, unused space on their property.

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Whatever the ultimate decision was, though, Hartman said they would abide by it.

Wooden fence
A photo of a wooden fence shows the proposed fence Kelsie Randall planned to build on her north Brainerd property.
Contributed

Marohn and two other neighbors spoke against the variance during Wednesday’s public forum.

Along with doing their own survey to determine the property lines, Marohn said Randall and Hartman have two other options as far as he is concerned: Find a boundary fence both he and the couple approve of or move the fence farther into their property.

“The applicant here is not robbed of options,” he said, even though the options they have might not be agreeable to them.

North Fifth Street resident Mary Aegerter said she can’t imagine north Brainerd or other parts of the city with several 6-foot fences visible from the road, even though there are some others in the city. She suggested a decreasing fence that starts out at 6 feet tall near the back of the property and gets gradually shorter closer to the sidewalk.

Graphic of wooden fence with text and arrows over it
A graphic Chuck Marohn presented to the Planning Commission estimates the setback distances from the lot lines. According to city staff, the portion permitted was roughly 13 feet from the property line.
Contributed

Krista Soukup, who lives on Bluff Avenue and is president of the Brainerd Northside Neighborhood Association, said the association has tried to keep an open mind when reviewing all the information on this issue but is ultimately against the variance for the fence.

“We are concerned with the look of these tall fences going up all over our neighborhood as a whole,” she said. “We believe that there’s plenty of space and rural, beautiful areas in our county and within our city to have larger fences.”

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Zach Skarolid, another North Fifth Street resident, sided with Hartman and Randall, speaking in favor of the variance. While he said he understands the need for setbacks, those who are speaking out about this issue are likely people who go home to their own backyards that are enclosed with 6-foot fences for privacy. The fence in question, he said, should be allowed with the proper setbacks.

Commission’s action

After hearing from both parties and other neighbors, commissioner Kevin Yeager joked he would recommend a 12-foot fence just to keep the two sides apart. In all seriousness, though, Yeager said he drove around north Brainerd and saw other 6-foot fences encroaching on sidewalks and hated every one of them.

“And that’s my issue here,” Yeager said. “Greater nonconformities, especially in an instance of precedent, is a very dangerous path that I would like to see us try to avoid if at all possible.”

He added that living in a city dwelling means embracing a specific type of neighborly atmosphere.

“I believe that’s why people move to cities — why I moved to the city,” Yeager said. “I want my kids to run across the street and play in the neighbor’s yard, and half the time I have no idea where they are but know they’re safe because they’re in a neighborhood. Six-foot fences don’t help that.”

Council liaison Tad Erickson, who also sits on the City Council, said he generally likes tall fences and wants people to be able to do what they want with their property, but there still needs to be reasonable setbacks.

Commissioner Don Gorham agreed with the previous comments, as did Theresa Woodward, who said adding a variance to a permit that already doesn’t meet specifications would just be a continuation of violations.

Mike Duval and Matt Kallroos were absent from Wednesday’s meeting.

With the commission’s recommended denial of the variance, the request will now go in front of the City Council, which will have the final say. The council’s next meeting is at 7:30 p.m. Aug. 1.

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Whether the council denies the variance or not, Kramvik said specific property lines would still have to be determined and the portion of the fence along Marohn’s property be moved, unless Marohn gave written consent.Going forward, Kramvik said permits for boundary-line fences will require the applicant to either get a signature from the neighbor or provide the property line pins showing the exact boundaries.

If Randall and Hartman continue under their current permit, the fence would have to be built 20 feet back from the property line along North Fourth Street, as it was issued under the former zoning code, which included a provision for corner lots where the backyard abuts a neighbor’s side yard.

If the variance is denied, or if Randall and Hartman were to withdraw the variance request, Kramvik said they could apply for a new permit under the new zoning code, which would allow them to build the 6-foot fence to the spot erroneously granted in the first permit, which is in line with the outermost facade on the house along North Fourth Street.

THERESA BOURKE may be reached at theresa.bourke@brainerddispatch.com or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchTheresa .

Theresa Bourke started working at the Dispatch in July 2018, covering Brainerd city government and area education, including Brainerd Public Schools and Central Lakes College.
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