Gray appeases city, removes portion of illegal fence

By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 17, 2010

D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray is no longer fenced in, at least not literally, as he seeks to put the seven-month drama over his illegal fence behind him and his campaign for mayor.

Gray recently finished removing a portion of the black aluminum fence that a city board ruled was on public space, complying with concerns from city inspectors and regulators over the fence's height and location.

The work has left Gray's $500,000 Hillcrest home with barriers around the side and rear but not the front facing Branch Avenue SE.

"The portion of the fence that the inspectors ordered him to remove was removed," Gray spokeswoman Traci Hughes said Friday. "He always said he was going to comply with the order."

With Gray locked in a close race with incumbent Adrian M. Fenty in the Sept. 14 Democratic mayoral primary, the $12,600 fence turned into one of the first flash points of the increasingly nasty campaign.

Fenty supporters used the fence to question Gray's ethics, raising concerns about whether he thought he was above the law. Gray countered that he was a victim of overzealous city regulators and agencies out to undermine his candidacy and reputation.

City inspectors and regulators said Friday that they had not officially confirmed that Gray fully complied with their order to remedy the situation. But officials appeared as if they were ready to take Gray at his word that he had followed the order.

"I assume he recognized the binding nature of the order and has taken steps to comply," Attorney General Peter Nickles said. "I am happy after two and a half years we finally have compliance with the law."

In 2008, Gray installed the fence as part of a major landscaping project. But neither Gray nor his contractor obtained the required permit to build the fence, which stood without much neighborhood opposition.

When a series of newspaper stories about renovations to his home were published in the Washington Times late last year, the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs realized that no permit to build the fence had been issued.

Gray, who said he didn't know that his contractor hadn't gotten a permit, filed for a permit. But city inspectors determined that the fence exceeded the District's height limit and that it was located in a public right-of-way.

Gray was backed by the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission and filed for an exception. But the District's Public Space Committee, which is charged with protecting the appearance of city neighborhoods, ruled in May that Gray had to lower the 67-inch fence to the limit of 42 inches or move it back to the property line. Gray had until July 22 to comply with the committee's order.

Gray initially discussed appealing the decision in court, but decisions by the committee are final. "If he had moved it back, which was another option, it would have been in his living room," Hughes said.

Hughes said she didn't know how much the removal work cost but estimated it to be several thousand dollars. With attorney fees and fines totaling $2,400, Hughes said, the fence has "been an expensive endeavor for the chairman."

It remains unclear whether the fence will also be costing Gray votes on primary day.

During a radio debate Thursday, Fenty said Gray should have known that permits were necessary to build a fence.

Staff writer Ann E. Marimow contributed to this report.

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