What Does a Fence Viewer Do?

Elizabeth West

A fence viewer settles disputes regarding boundary lines on shared property, and oversees construction of walls, fences, hedges and other markers that divide them. In colonial America, they were appointed to deal with problems involving roaming livestock. They still may do so today, but mostly are involved in urban settlements. In some areas, the fence viewer holds a paid position, but others may have an informal appointment or be volunteers. They are more akin to arbitrators and inspectors than law enforcement.

In colonial America, fence viewers were appointed to deal with problems involving roaming livestock.
In colonial America, fence viewers were appointed to deal with problems involving roaming livestock.

Fences must conform to municipal law in terms of height, placement, materials and which owners are responsible for construction or demolition if the fence is unlawful. The laws may have changed over time from the originals that set the responsibilities of a fence viewer. For example, in Massachusetts, much of the land cleared in the 17th century for agricultural purposes is now forested. With the change of usage, property owners no longer have to consider livestock issues or crop damage.

In most jurisdictions the homeowner will file a form with the city clerk’s office requesting a viewing. The fence viewer is then contacted and a visit scheduled, usually within 30 days. They look at the fence onsite, taking into account the terrain, what the fence is specifically used for, and the legislation involved. They usually speak with the landowners regarding any concerns with the fence’s height, encroachment or who is responsible for payment if the fence is to be repaired or dismantled.

The determination of shared cost depends on whether owners share mutual benefit from the fence's construction. Many areas decide this by following the right hand rule. A fence viewer marks the middle and each neighbor is responsible for the portion of the fence to their right, roughly half. The viewer can determine if a prior agreement is fair, and register the agreement with the city or county so it applies to subsequent buyers of the property.

In many areas, spite fences, or those built past a certain height to annoy or block neighbors, are against local statutes. A fence viewer may be called out to determine if the structure conforms to rules and regulations in the area. If the builder has indeed constructed a spite fence, the offended party may sue under public nuisance laws to have it lowered or dismantled. Monetary damages may be awarded in addition to the modification requirements.

There are no special educational requirements for fence viewers, only an agreement to perform the duties as dictated by the statutes. Some districts may have up to three fence viewers. This can help in tricky cases where opinions clash, and the third person can be an impartial tie-breaker. When one landowner disagrees with the determination, that person can usually file an appeal in the district court. Landowners involved in the case may have to pay a small fee, a portion of which may be directed to the fence viewer for services rendered.

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