Ask the Architect

Replacing a fence with a wall


Q. I have a fence in my front yard and want to replace it with a wall because I live on a main road, and cars have crashed into the fence a few times and I’ve had to replace it. It’s hard to understand that someone would hit your fence, damage property and just drive off, but they do. Maybe a wall will stop them better and keep my property safer. Do I need a permit?

A. I hope you asked this because you already had a permit for the fence. Most municipalities want you to apply for a permit so they can check the height of what you plan to put up. A wall isn’t like a fence, because it’s considered a built structure, which requires a correct footing, and must be constructed so it doesn’t come apart or fall down, which sounds like what you want. I know, right now we could solve one of America’s biggest problems if we built a wall … around certain presidential candidates … and got them to pay for it!

Walls, in some communities, also require review by a zoning board, because they’re required to meet distance-setback requirements from property lines. Some communities don’t address low walls, because they’re below the height requirement. For example, one town doesn’t regulate or require a permit for anything under 8½ inches high, while another community allows anything under 1 foot high without a permit, simply as a landscape border.

You need to ask your building department plans examiner for a specific interpretation before deciding what to do. I always do, because interpretations change based on recent events, recent official decisions or policy changes. It makes sense not to consider something low a built structure, because its height doesn’t exceed its width, and for that reason it wouldn’t lean or fall over. But building something to resist a moving multi-ton vehicle is another matter, on many levels.

Aside from the planning needed to reinforce the wall structure with steel rods, mortar or interlocking modules that are freestanding, there is the legal matter of creating a potentially dangerous condition in which the passengers in a vehicle could be seriously injured or killed by your protective deterrent. You should consult an attorney about liability issues. Twenty-something years ago I answered this question in this column after first consulting an attorney, who advised that the situation is similar to putting a warning label on a ladder. Ladder companies have been sued by people who said the companies recognized the danger of using their products, and therefore had a responsibility for the safety of ladder users everywhere. I thought that was a bit far-fetched, but it happened. You may actually be liable for the wall, knowing it was done to impede a vehicle, even though the vehicle was unsafely operated and trespassing when it left the street. Lawyers, let me know, please.

© 2017 Monte Leeper. Readers are encouraged to send questions to, with “Herald question” in the subject line, or to Herald Homes, 2 Endo Blvd., Garden City, NY 11530, Attn: Monte Leeper, architect.