Home & Design January 12, 2009

Neighbors on the Fence

The art of setting boundaries

It’s tempting to believe that we rugged Western individualists live and die by the motto, “Don’t fence me in.” But, chances are, we’re going to fence ourselves into our little piece of the Wood River Valley as soon as we begin paying a mortgage.

It may be to keep the kids safe or the pets contained. It may be to keep others off our lawn or to block the view of passing traffic. It may be to create a decorative nook in our yard, or simply to keep the neighborhood kids from wandering too close to the outdoor swimming pool.

“In efforts to define our own space, we have dug moats, hand built a 1,500-mile wall over mountains, and planted a flag on the moon,” says Dan Ramsey, author of The Complete Book of Fences, a build-it-yourself book. “Psychologists say it stems from ‘primordial’ territorial instincts. Whatever the basis for this need to stake out our turf, we’re building more fences today than ever before.”

Tyler Lohrke, a Hailey psychotherapist, agrees: “West of the Rockies, we have the Colt 45, water rights, and barbed-wire fence. It’s the Western mentality. It’s so wide open here, we want to string off our little bit of territory.”

In the beginning, the Wood River Valley was zigzagged by rail fences and barbed wire designed to keep livestock in. Today, you’re apt to find a hodgepodge of chain link, post and rail, picket fencing, and solid boards—even fences fashioned of skis and willow branches, reflecting a strong sense of place.

Randy Wilkins’s ski fence stretches a hundred feet across Baldy’s shadow in his backyard, undulating in height from 170 centimeters to 213 centimeters, according to the length of the skis. It has served as the inspiration for ski fences along Warm Springs Road and in Bellevue’s industrial area. It has also been featured on PBS and KTVB News in Boise.

“It’s appropriate for a ski area,” says Wilkins, who also makes chairs out of skis. “I wanted a fence, and the price of wood was so expensive. I had piles of skis lying around and figured this was a good way to keep some of them out of the landfill. Besides, skis last longer than wood.”

One of the most unusual fences among those on the small lots in west Ketchum is the willow fence outside Strega Bar and Boutique, which juts up against the iron fence of Felix’s Restaurant. Owner Kim Harrison and her husband, Michael, built the fence to route customers into an entryway at the side of the teahouse. They accompanied a river restoration expert on a willow-cutting expedition and garnered enough for themselves. They then tied each piece to the next with wire, leaving branches on some of the sticks.

“It wasn’t difficult—just time consuming,” Kim says, estimating it took about 30 hours to build. “Customers ask how we did it all the time.”

Fences are even more prolific in Hailey and Bellevue, where lots tend to be smaller and homeowners more apt to stake out their turf.


Woodcarver R.C. Hink is adorning the new fence he and Lynn Toneri are building outside their Hailey home with a variety of eclectic wood sculpture touches.

Heidi Albrecht, an artist, teacher, and music producer, has made a canvas of the recycled doors she’s turned into a fence outside her Hailey home. Albrecht started her door fence after she moved from a six-acre ranch in Muldoon Canyon to a small lot in Hailey, hammering a door she’d rescued from a barn onto the old four-foot fence lining the backyard of her new home. Pretty soon people started giving her others, including a vintage sliding door, a door from the Wicked Spud, and an old stage door from nexStage Theatre.

She’s painted “The Doors,” as they’ve come to be known, and hangs cobwebs and spiders, wreaths or spring flowers on them, depending on the season. “I call it my art installation,” she says. “And it saves some really interesting doors from the dump.”

The most common types of fences in Hailey and Bellevue are of solid-board cedar, which stands up to six feet high and blocks out pretty much everything, and white picket fences, which seem to be as much about decoration as about keeping the kids and dogs in. >>>



High, solid fences offer ultimate privacy, but homeowners run the risk of claustrophobia, shading out sun-loving tomatoes, and even alienating neighbors. Dan Burden, who heads up Walkable Communities, Inc., says tall fences next to the sidewalk tend to detract from the enjoyment of walking, while shorter fences parked a few feet back from the sidewalk have the opposite effect.

At her Elm Street home, Jane Rosen chose a white picket fence made out of plastic recycled from milk cartons to contain her children when they were small. The fence adds to the ambience of her turn-of-the-century-style home, especially given the antique washtub sitting in the front yard. “I wanted a little privacy,” she says, “but I also wanted to see the neighbors. And I like seeing people go by on the bike path.”

That’s the case with the Lohrkes, as well. The scalloped vinyl picket fence built around their 1979 Victorian-style home confines their golden retriever and gives a degree of privacy, without giving them a cloistered feeling.

“The white picket fence is part of the whole American dream. It brings up warm, fuzzy feelings,” says Lohrke. “We didn’t want to do a six-foot privacy fence. Nor is it our intention to have people stay out of our yard. It’s not a problem for us that people walk through our yard—we expect that because we live in downtown Hailey. Part of the magic of living here is that you can walk everywhere, and we have kids and their families walking by constantly.”

Some homeowners prefer living fences. Eric and Michelle Alberdi, for instance, constructed a hedge of evergreens between their stucco home and the dirt road running along the bike path. “We love the natural look, and it gives the kids some boundaries,” says Michelle, who has four children under the age of 13.

Laurie Mallea and her husband, Bruce, went a step further, planting aspen, dogwood, blue spruce, and pine to create a buffer between their house and the traffic heading up Indian Creek Road. They then built a decorative fence out of concrete and river rock to contain the bark chips around the trees.

“Some people think we wanted the fence to keep people out, but the wall is purely functional,” says Laurie. “It’s worked out great. In summer we can’t see the road at all, and in winter the leaves on the deciduous trees fall, and that lets the sunlight in.”

Weather is not a big factor when it comes to fences in the Wood River Valley, says Robert Parker, former manager of Sawtooth Fencing. Fences do not have to be pressure-treated in a dry climate like ours, and the snow and cold don’t seem to affect fencing material.


Price and maintenance are the foremost considerations in more closely built neighborhoods, says Sun Valley Garden Center’s Mark Papke. More and more homeowners are choosing vinyl for that reason, even though it costs between $20 and $30 a foot versus $10 a foot for post and rail (the savings is in the lack of maintenance).

The Lohrkes will cloak their vinyl fence with greenery. “We plan to grow vines and sunflowers along it, and it would have been quite a chore to deal with them every time we went to paint a wooden fence,” Lohrke says.

Fences can be one of the least expensive ways to increase a home’s value for resale, especially if someone with kids or pets is looking at it, says Sonja Huntsman, a Sun Valley realtor. Yet, she adds, there is also value in long expanses of open lawn.

In fact, David Wann, author of Superbia! 31 Ways to Create Sustainable Neighborhoods, suggests that we could make neighborhoods more friendly and less isolating if we tore down our backyard fences to make room for larger common areas.

You don’t see as many fences in the north end of the Valley, where the lawns tend to be spacious and the elbowroom huge. When you do see them, they’re generally post-and-log fences made of Douglas fir that blend in with the natural look of the surrounding mountains.

“Homeowners with these types of fences generally just want people to know where their property line starts—they don’t want people wandering through,” says Papke.

The fence certainly isn’t designed to keep animals in.”

Those who opt to fence their property should check neighborhood covenants before installation. Some communities limit the height of privacy fences. Others spell out what kind of materials and styles a homeowner may use. Sometimes—as in the case of property owners bordering the Hailey Cemetery—fences are even required.

When Laurie Roark and her husband contracted with architect Linda Bergerson to design a unique privacy fence for their front yard, they knew they wanted a cool, private place where they could sit in the evening and enjoy a glass of wine, out of the late afternoon sun that blasted the backyard deck of their Eastridge Drive home.

The attractive fence features cement pillars covered with stucco that matches their house, topped with painted lattice.

“We’ve had many compliments since,” says Roark. “And we’ve enjoyed it immensely.”

Karen Bossick is a Wood River Journal reporter who is happiest when she’s left the fences behind to plod along trails past the rivers, through the woods, and up the mountainsides.



This article appears in the Spring 2006 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.