Friday, March 1, 2024

Do I need a permit for that? Common mistakes, plus city to require pre-approval for fences

Fences in residential lots must be 4 feet or shorter in front yards and as high as 8 feet along side and back yards in Wilmington city limits. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna F. Still)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY –– Many homeowners often look to enhance their properties with DIY, weekend warrior projects. 

Some minor construction jobs don’t call for a permit. But when they do, it’s a headache if the homeowner gets hit with a fine –– or worse, when their time and money gets wasted after an installation is deemed out of sync with local ordinances. 

RELATED: Pickleball court on Carolina Beach must procure permit or face destruction

Before spending a few hundred or thousand bucks on something, check to see if a permit is needed. 

Permits for fences

Accessory buildings (like sheds and garages) are the items most frequently built without permits, according to City of Wilmington spokesperson Jennifer Dandron. 

A new fence permit policy “will probably eclipse the number of sheds built without permits,” Dandron wrote in an email. 

There is no draft version of the policy available yet, but fence permits will cost $25. City planners are preparing to initiate the new requirement alongside the implementation of the new Land Development Code, which takes effect Dec. 1. “They will be required for anyone erecting a new fence,” Dandron wrote.

The intent is to ensure fences follow code requirements. “We were planning to implement a permit requirement for fences a few years ago due to several complaints that fences had been installed that were too tall or facing the wrong direction, etc.,” Dandron wrote in an email.

Under the updated LDC, fences in residential areas can be no higher than 8 feet in rear or side yards and 4 feet in front yards. Any post or fence wall that leans more than 10 degrees must be fixed, per the code. The structural framework of a fence can’t face a neighbor’s property or right-of-ways.

“Since we were already working on the new code, we decided to make the permit requirement concurrent with the implementation of the new code,” Dandron wrote.

Sheds, garages 

City residents can have a maximum of two accessory structures per property. These structures must be located within proper setbacks, at minimum 5 feet from side and rear property lines and 15 feet from the main building. No accessory structures are allowed in front yards, per the code. 

A chicken coop is considered an accessory structure in New Hanover County. The county does not have specific rules that address chickens. 

If city residents want to keep chickens (or other pet poultry), they’ll need a permit. Poultry permits are only granted in the city in residential lots bigger than 0.34 acres and each chicken must have 10 square feet of space. No more than five hens allowed; no roosters, and no discounts for chicks, according to city ordinance. 

Any accessory structure larger than 12 feet in any direction generally calls for a building permit –– a requirement sometimes residents miss –– according to county spokesperson Jessica Loeper. 

Other detached structures requiring a permit in New Hanover County include, according to Loeper: 

  • decks of all sizes
  • gazebos
  • retaining walls that support more than 4 ft. of unrestrained fill, cross a lot line, or support a structure
  • detached masonry chimneys within 10 feet of other buildings or lot lines
  • swimming pools and spas
  • detached carports (“light gauge metal carports under 400 square feet are exempt”)
  • docks, piers and bulkheads.

Aside from exterior construction, many residents may not realize most utility repair work also requires a permit. There are some exceptions, including switching out a residential water heater; changing electrical fixtures, switches, or lighting; and replacing plumbing fixtures on the dwelling side of the plumbing trap.

Send tips and comments to Johanna F. Still at

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