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Board sets Aug. 1 hearing to consider change for how infill development should be separated from some existing homes.

Good fences make good neighbors, but Washington County commissioners are finding it more difficult than they thought to define just what good fences are.

They will hear Aug. 1 whether that definition, as modified by a 3-2 vote of the commissioners last week, encompasses a "site-obscuring" fence 6 feet high or a vegetation buffer that will reach that height in two growing seasons.

The change is proposed as a requirement to separate new infill development on two acres or less from existing homes. The requirement would apply in the R-5 zone, which allows four or five homes per acre, and the R-6 zone, for five or six homes.

The demand for housing has spurred development on small lots in urban unincorporated communities, where about a third of the county's 600,000 residents live.

Board Chairman Andy Duyck says the change is meant to provide "clear and objective" standards in county code. A county hearings officer concluded in 2013 that standards in the current code do not comply with state law.

"The current language is too subjective," Commissioner Dick Schouten said. "My own view is that the standard is a fairly modest change to help us comply with state law."

Still, after hearing public testimony July 11, the board split 3-2 on the changes they want in the code.

Commissioners Greg Malinowski and Bob Terry said it would be hard for developers or landowners to obtain vegetation that is already 6 feet high – and there is no guarantee that it would reach that height even with natural growth.

Malinowski is a farmer; Terry spent 20 years in the nursery business.

Even Duyck, who voted to proceed, said the 6-foot standard is clear but does not fit all situations.

A formal public hearing is scheduled Aug. 1.

The board heard testimony on both sides.

Virginia Bruce of Cedar Mill presented a petition with hundreds of signers opposed to the change.

"The proposed standard … will do nothing to address the problems that come with infill housing," she said, such as a loss of privacy, removal of trees, shading of yards and gardens, drainage problems and unwanted street lighting.

"Existing homes cannot easily change the location of windows or private areas. The existing neighbors should not be required to provide screening to protect the privacy of their yards or interiors of their homes."

The petition says the county should go further. Among its proposals: Wider minimum setbacks for rear yards and side yards, retention of trees adjacent to existing mature trees "as practical," onsite and downstream drainage that can handle additional stormwater runoff, minimal high windows overlooking existing homes, a 4-foot-high limit on retaining walls between infill and existing homes, and new lots individually graded to preserve trees.

The board also heard from James Crawford, a landowner who said the proposals in the petition go too far in the other direction.

"Objective standards that apply to every landowner without prejudice, malice or avarice need to be established," Crawford said.

"The self-appointed leaders of the community participation organizations should no longer be allowed to impose onerous demands on the landowners they have decided to demonize while making minimal demands on themselves."

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