Gray fence flap raises questions of enforcement

D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray was told this year to lower or move his residential fence.
D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray was told this year to lower or move his residential fence. (Marvin Joseph/the Washington Post)
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By Ann E. Marimow
Tuesday, August 3, 2010

During Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's tenure, the District Department of Transportation apparently has gone after only one resident for violating the city's height limit on fences: D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray.

"We didn't find any others," said the department's Freedom of Information Act officer, Diana G. Jordan, in response to a request from The Washington Post to review citations.

Jordan said Monday that her office had conducted an extensive look at citations issued since January 2007, when Fenty took office.

Gray, who is challenging the mayor in the Sept. 14 Democratic primary, said the findings support his assertion that he was singled out and given the runaround by the city's bureaucracy during a seven-month saga involving the black aluminum fence that surrounded his Hillcrest home, which has been partly dismantled.

"It corroborates what I suspected and says to me it's political harassment," Gray said. "I suspect, but will never know, that this would have been very routine if I were not running for mayor."

In April, the department issued a series of $300-a-day citations totaling $2,400 because Gray had not completed an application for a 5-foot-7-inch fence, which he installed two years ago without proper permits.

Gray was ordered to lower or move the fence in the spring after an obscure but powerful Public Space Committee overseen by the mayor subsequently found that he had not provided sufficient justification for exceeding the District's 3 1/2 -foot height limit on fences built in public space.

The fate of the fence emerged as a campaign issue, with Fenty and his supporters saying that Gray should have known that permits were required. Attorney General Peter Nickles said Monday that "the fact that there haven't been other fines is an indication of how egregious it was and how slow they were to file -- not that there was politics involved."

"The people that did the work and imposed the fine are independent bureaucrats. I didn't tell them to impose fines. The mayor didn't tell them to impose fines," added Nickles, who has said that he monitored the process to ensure that the chairman's case was handled like any other.

The fence caught the attention of city regulators in December after reports in the Washington Times questioned Gray's relationship with a real estate developer whose company he hired to perform separate improvement projects at his home in Southeast Washington.

Gray has said he was unaware that his contractor had not filed the necessary paperwork for the fence. Once he was contacted by city regulators, Gray said he moved quickly to comply. The back-and-forth between his lawyers and city agency officials, however, continued for months, with Gray's lawyers saying that the checklist for completion kept changing and the city sending letters three times in one month warning that the agency was prepared to impose fines if an application was not completed.

Tony Bullock, a communications director for former mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), said Gray has paid a heavy price for what appears to be a contractor's misstep.

"I sincerely doubt that Fenty and his team are trying to make an issue of this," said Bullock, who is not affiliated with either campaign. "But I think that more than likely, agency folks are nervous about being accused of whitewashing a violation, so they are going overboard in terms of enforcement when common sense and discretion would be more appropriate."

The fines are in dispute, with the department objecting to Gray's initial appeal. But Gray had the section of fence in question along Branch Avenue taken down late last month.

As he decides how to fill the gap in front of his home, Gray said he cannot bear to look in his garage, where he stored the pieces of the $12,600 fence.

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