Features 2000

The Melrose Fence Viewer

Oldest office in New England to protect farm borders and lots.

Len Dalton


The City of Melrose Board of Aldermen recently saw fit to appoint me as Melrose Fence Viewer. People inevitably ask, "What is a fence viewer?"

That is a predictable question. The office of fence viewer happens to be one of the oldest appointments in New England. Back in the 17th century, as farmers clearcut the forest and plowed the fields, they were confronted with thousands of tons of boulders left by the glaciers. They got rid of the boulders with their horses by building stone walls along the borders of their lands. These walls remain intact today around the countryside and are highly regarded among modern property owners.

In the early days, it was found that a fence viewer was needed on those occasions when walls were moved or modified illegally. Woe be to any man so caught! It was considered a most serious crime to alter an established wall.

Early fence viewers, armed with wall measurements, were able to arbitrate and/or prosecute such crimes by adjoining farmers. Often times, cattle wandered into a neighbor's fields and this was not allowed either. Boundaries had to be maintained and if a farmer neglected to do his part, his neighbor could do the repairs and charge his recalcitrant neighbor 2 times the cost. And, if that neighbor didn't come up with the money, he had to pay 12 percent interest until payment was made! Money, being scarce in those days, made it easy to get scores settled.

Today, the fence viewer advises lot owners if they desire to erect a fence properly and stay out of difficulty with his or her neighbor. The height of the fence can be no more than 6 feet high but, and this is a large 'but', at street intersections, no wall or fence can obstruct visibility to traffic and can be no higher than 3 feet for a distance back from the lot line of 5 feet. That reminds me, I have to cut the 'bamboo' growing at the junction of Swains Pond Avenue and Dexter Road, as it now makes the intersection completely 'blind'. And drivers can't even see the 'stop' sign! That'll get done even if I have to do it myself. In so doing, Melrosians become protected at that intersection.

Then there is the "spite fence". This is a fence erected which for any reason is offensive to one's neighbor. It is not legal! The fence viewer has the power to order such fences changed to be legal and to otherwise not offend. A wise neighbor will take out a permit and make sure his fence fits all the provisions of the law. If hostilities escalate, the building inspector gets involved and his word become final! The Commonwealth of Massachusetts General Laws chapter 49 describe in detail the obligations of lot owners. Generally it is only common sense.

Interestingly, lot owners at an intersection cannot erect any obstruction to visibility closer than 5 feet to said intersection. A fence there constructed must be no higher than 3 feet as far back from the intersection as 5 feet. That includes fences as well as brush.

August 4, 2000


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