A jarring experience that I’m sure many of my Hudson Valley neighbors share is roaming our two-lane roads and suddenly confronting a big, long wooden wall running right next to the road. It may be called a “fence”, but I think that a structure that’s eight feet tall and completely solid is more accurately called a wall. It’s no coincidence that these obstructions often block the view of a beautiful old house, and a view of bucolic landscape beyond that the house was positioned to capture. The houses are the ones that, generations ago, were sited efficiently near sleepy lanes that over the years became two-lane roads with cars and trucks barreling down 24/7. We gnash our teeth and peevishly say, “If they didn’t want to be close to the road they should have chosen a different house,” but really, who does want to be 50 feet from headlights, fumes and engine noise? And we hate to see our community’s lovely old houses sitting vacant and crumbling.
The big wooden walls that are becoming more common have both physical and psychological effects, as I discovered first hand. Several years ago, I cleared an area of my yard that had grown wild, and suddenly I had a view right into my friendly neighbor’s previously private patio, and they, into my backyard. Before long, they told me that they would be putting up a fence—the solid wooden kind. Given the situation I agreed that it would be best and I was actually happy he’d be doing it (and paying for it!). He even said he’d leave a little gap at the end so we could still pass between when visiting. Sweet and thoughtful, right? Even so, the day the fence went up, I was surprised that my feelings were just a little hurt. I could see why neighbors get their noses so out of joint when a less sensitive tact is taken and a wall goes up without warning or permission. Mike Warren, Town of Marbletown Supervisor, tells me that they have no local fence ordinances, and that there are inevitable conflicts. One resident, suddenly faced with a 12-foot tall fence on their property line, even mounted a camera on top pointed toward his neighbor’s yard!
Big solid fences feel like a door slamming, adding insult to the injury of losing the view. But what to do when you’ve fallen in love with a house that’s this close to a speedy two-lane? Before you build, you should know that there are highly effective ways to give privacy and to buffer the sight and sound of traffic that are more attractive to your neighbors and community, and to you, too—because a big ugly wall on the outside is even more ugly on the inside, considering that the common etiquette is to have the good side of the fence facing outward.
Architect Michael McDonough, who has a home in Stone Ridge, advises determining the “minimum necessity” first. Do you need complete privacy, or would a semi-solid view barrier do the trick? Is your place a seasonal home and used only in the summer? Is sound the main problem? Could a shorter fence work? Perhaps you only need to make your backyard completely private.
Victoria Coyne, proprietress of Victoria Gardens in Rosendale and an ace landscape designer, advocates an early consultation with someone like her. “Spending $100 can save you $10,000 and give you a creative solution with which you’ll be much happier in the long run. Having your fence contractor attend the meeting is also a great help.”
Victoria knows a number of strategies to create the serene environment you crave and that will actually enhance the landscape, “smarter, friendlier ways that don’t feel like a spite fence or create the atmosphere of a fortress. Walls destroy the wonderful sense of community that this area is known for—more open frontage is much warmer for all.” She suggests beginning with the lay of the land and built elements. One option is to sculpt the earth to create a naturalistic berm topped with plantings (an example of this can be seen on the rail trail along Route 209 in Hurley). An open fence can be filled in with perennial plants, like climbing hydrangea. Thick hedges can muffle noise and provide a solid screen, and look great with older and historic homes. To Victoria, a fence is much more attractive when it complements the style of the house it surrounds, and could even look like an extension of the architecture of the house. If you’ve got to have a tall fence, make it dip down at the entrance to make it more welcoming and gracious. Break a sheer wall up into staggered panels, which is visually dynamic and also helpful if a solid wall would interrupt a deer path, turtle migration trek, or other wildlife right-of-way.
Mark Brown, a master carpenter living in Kingston who’s built miles of fences, says “you can tell a much more interesting story by adding curves, decorative detail, rustic uneveness, and a beautiful or unusual color to a solid fence.”
Mike Warren helpfully points out that it’s best to build a wall at least three feet from the property line, to enable maintenance to the outside of the fence; he cautions that you need to be sure that when you plant small hedges or shrubbery they won’t grow up and obstruct road and driveway views necessary for safety. Michael McDonough suggests elaborating plain wall fences by setting them further back and adding a layer of trees or shrubbery and perhaps an additional short open fence next to the road. Jennifer Schwartz Berky, an Ulster County Legislator with a background in architecture, strongly advocates building with wood. “As long as it’s not pressure-treated, wood is an excellent, renewable resource that is beautiful and durable. Plastic and vinyl are made of petroleum by-products, and create pollution in both their manufacture and breakdown.”
If you’re in a pinch, you could even grow a beautiful one-season fence by thickly planting sunflowers with tall ornamental grasses filling in later in the season. Or if you’re stuck with a plain wood wall, you could add beautiful painted supergraphics or patterns, which would give you the opportunity to work with a local artist. When you think a little about it, there are all kinds of alternatives. Even Benjamin Franklin offers a bit of wisdom that has stood the test of time: “Love thy neighbor, yet don’t pull down your hedge.”
Maria Reidelbach is an artist, author and local food activist living and eating in Accord, NY. (firstname.lastname@example.org)