Sarah Palin's fence didn't have to be so ugly

By Adrian Higgins
Thursday, June 24, 2010; SM10

Do bad neighbors make bad fences? I've seen a few fences in my time, but none quite as defiantly ugly as the one now shielding Sarah Palin and her family from what she suggests are the prying eyes of her new neighbor, an author named Joe McGinniss.

McGinniss wanted to rent a place in Wasilla, Alaska, to be close to the subject of his next book, the state's former governor, who is one of the hottest political celebrities of the moment. McGinniss hit the bull's-eye when Sarah and Todd Palin's next-door neighbor offered to rent him her rambler for the summer. A modest abode, it sits uncomfortably cheek by jowl with the Palins' beachlike house, a contemporary-style mansion with tall picture windows overlooking the water. Up went the fence, in a hurry.

As a prop in the theater of contemporary politics, the screen is a masterstroke. This billboard of a fence looks like the heroic, makeshift response of a woman protecting her besieged family from a loathsome spy. Writes Palin on her Facebook page: "Wonder what kind of material he'll gather while overlooking Piper's bedroom, my little garden, and the family's swimming hole?" This, in turn, spawned ugly and threatening responses against McGinniss. "She's pushed a button, and unleashed the hounds of hell," McGinniss told NBC's Matt Lauer.

However genuine the motives behind the fence, from a design, horticultural and sheer aesthetic standpoint, it looks like a disaster.

It rises to 14 feet or so, though the exact height shifts with its curious undulations. Instead of the standard approach of taking down the existing fence and replacing it with another, Todd's fence crew simply attached one wooden privacy fence on top of an existing one. Perhaps the idea is to remove the appendage when McGinniss moves on.

A fence of such towering presence would not be allowed in many communities across the land, including the District and the Virginia and Maryland suburbs. When I had a master carpenter install a six-foot cedar board fence in my back yard, an inspector from the local government invited himself onto the property with a tape measure. My son, who was about 10 at the time, recounted the visit when I got home from work. It's enough to make you join the "tea party."

But lofty fences come at a price. In trying to shut out the world, you can give your garden all the joy of a prison yard. And instant, tall fences play havoc with one's little eco-system. Plants that were growing happily in sunlight find themselves smothered in shade, and the air becomes stagnant, perfect for fungal diseases.

While many jurisdictions limit fence heights to six or seven feet, lower in front, there are ways to get around the limit. Trees and hedges can form the building blocks of house-high screens, though some are more artful and subtle than others. Whether they're famous or not, privacy is one of the primary goals of homeowners seeking to renovate their gardens, said Guy Williams, president of DCA Landscape Architects in Georgetown.

"What we try to do is define areas most in need of privacy screens and try to be creative, with a combination of plant material," he said, "and we also try to plan for the future."

But some clients with a deep need not to be seen and even deeper pockets demand such things as 18-foot hollies planted root ball to root ball. "But there are paybacks" for such instant gratification, said Williams. Trees need their own space, below ground as well as above, and if you plant big ones close together, you either have to keep them clipped as hedges, a major maintenance commitment, or remove some as they get congested.

If you want to see screening at its best, hop on one of the many crowded tour buses crammed with sightseers looking for the rich, the famous, the beautiful in Beverly Hills. What do they see? Pillars, gates, trees, hedges, gatehouses, the glimpses of roofs -- in short, not a thing. Do they feel cheated? "Many riders think it's not worth it," said Lindsay Blake, a celebrity watcher and blogger in Pasadena ( "But a lot of people have never been to Hollywood, so just seeing Jennifer Aniston's fence is exciting."

Gary Gold, vice president of Hilton and Hyland, real estate brokers to the stars, says some clients create privacy with fences and ficus hedges, but those who are super-private either buy into gated communities or acquire neighboring properties to control who lives there or how they are developed. For fun, his colleagues recently hired a tour bus, anonymously, to see Beverly Hills and Bel Air as tourists. "The tour guides had it so wrong -- who lives there, who used to live there, what it sold for. It was hilarious," he said.

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