Dear PoPville – Can I Do This to my Fence?

“Dear PoP,

Your recent post of a thief climbing a fence to steal two bikes inspired me to ask the following question.

Is there any DC zoning regulation that keeps me from embedding broken glass shards into cement on the top of my backyard/alley fence? I too had a bike stolen this past year, which required the thief to not only jump a 7 1/2 foot fence to get IN to my backyard, but to once again scale that fence (with a 50 pound bike in tow) to get out.

I can’t help but think that if a row of razor-sharp glass had stood between the thief and my sweet Schwinn Hornet Cruiser, they might have moved on.

I know glass shards sound a bit barbaric, but it’s so much nicer looking than razor wire…and let’s just say it would get the job done.”

Anyone know if this is legal or not?

Do you think it should be legal?

55 Comment

  • I personally think the broken glass security measure is fantastic. I grew up in Jakarta, and this was quite common all around the city and in the surrounding suburbs. One thing to be aware of is that a simple carpet, rug, or wad of fabric provides an easy barrier between the palms of a would-be robber and your glass line of defense.

  • Probably not. Probably should be. Don’t ask, just do. Like the folks who are trying to rip you off.

  • you’re approaching this from the wrong angle. It needs to be symmetric pieces of colored tile. then it’s a kitschy neighborhood art display atop your fence. The fact that it’s razor sharp is just an unfortunate side effect of your creativity spicing up your drab fence.

  • Found out recently that booby traps are indeed illegal. But of course this isn’t a booby trap.

    If barbed wire is legal, why wouldn’t glass? You could just say it’s art!

  • YES YOU CAN. I recently put in a electric gate behind my row house. My contractor joked to the inspector that I wanted him to put broken bottles on the top of the wall to keep unwanted “guest” out. The inspector saw no problem with my idea. Upon finishing up the job the contractors last task was to put broken bottles on top of the new wall. Just think of it as a city bottle tree!

  • Here’s a section from the DCMR – the real question is what do they mean by “similar” (i.e. does that include the walls with broken glass)

    “3110.4 Barbed wire and similar fences. No barbed wire or similar fence, barrier, or obstruction, made thus in whole or in part, shall be erected, constructed, or maintained, along the building restriction line, or in or upon any street, alley, road, or other public walk, driveway, or public or private parking in the District of Columbia.

    3110.4.1 Barbed wire and similar fence on private property. A barbed wire or similar fence, barrier or obstruction may be erected wholly on private property when located in back of the lot line or building restriction line if one exists. The minimum height of the lowest strand of barbed wire shall be 6 feet (1829 mm) above adjacent ground and the wire shall not project beyond the lot line or building restriction line.”

    12 DCMR § 3110A, 12 DC ADC § 3110A

    • That garage on Georgia near Missouri has had barbed wire facing the street for YEARS…It’s an eyesore(and not very effective because there is a carpet tossed over it too!)

  • interesting, never heard of this. definitely more attractive/less noticeable than barbed wire. dunno about the rules for stuff like that but I’d imagine you’d certainly be liable…

  • happens in the third world all the time. in many parts of DC you wouldn’t know the difference anyway

    • I grew up in the Philippines. We definitely had broken glass embedded on our walls as well. And agree with the assessment that most parts of DC is the third world anyway.

  • build a higher wall?

  • Solar powered electric fence? Nothing fatal, just a nice little jolt.

  • You could always check with Mayor Gray… I believe he should be up to speed on DC’s fence codes.

  • I love this post, cause I considered doing it, too. I lived for a while in India, and it’s common there. Although I’ve give up on barbed wire (ugly) and glass (sounds too illegal), I’ve wondered about cacti. Wouldn’t cacti be eco-friendly, attractive and threatening? They wouldn’t be 100% effective but would certainly send a message.

  • I think you want something sturdy up there, like metal spikes. Unless they’re particularly large pieces of broken glass, it wouldn’t take much to just break all the sharp ends off.

  • Its interesting that barbed wire is too ugly, but recreating the best low-budget theft deterrent fresh from New Delhi is a plausible alternative.

    I sincerely hope no one who puts glass on their wall complains about bullet proof glass at their corner store.

  • Emmaleigh504

    I love broken glass on top of walls; I think it’s pretty.

    • From what I saw in New Delhi, the broken glass is actually very attractive. They’re different colors and sparkle in the sun, like a rainbow. No comparison with barbed wire, rusty nails or bullet proof glass.

  • bfinpetworth

    Someone in Petworth, corner of Chittenden and 5th, has masonry nails sticking out from the top of his brick wall around his yard. Its a low wal – 2 – 3 ft tall – so I assume it was done to “discourage” people from sitting on his wall.

    • That is a little hard core and probably illegal. One punctured testicle and all bets are off.

  • I grew up overseas and we always had broken glass on top of the walls around our house. One place we lived we lived had bushes with really long thorns. Some kind of azalea maybe?

    • Nah, azaleas aren’t thorny. Possibly a pyracantha or hawthorn. Hawthorns have NASTY 3-inch thorns.

      To the OP, any chance you could plant roses, barberry, pyracantha or hawthorns against the wall instead of the glass? Rasberry vines are also pretty nasty (nature’s barbed wire) but could provide you some nice edibles as well. Pyracantha can be trained to grow up the wall.

      IMHO, broken glass looks paranoid and awful, and (as has been mentioned) is easily defeated. A 4-foot wide mass of thorny shrubs may be more effective at hindering and punishing would be theives and add some positive beauty to your property.

  • If this were a more tropical climate, I’d recommend Spanish Bayonet. It lives up to its name. No one gets through it.

  • The lawyers should chime in, but I think this is a fairly easy way to get sued and lose your house altogether.

    If a kid gets hurt (and it’s usually kids) this might fall under the “attractive nuisance” laws. You should probably check with your homeowners insurance to see if they’ll even cover you for something like this.

    • OMG, I luv it, ““attractive nuisance” laws.” DC could have a contest!

    • Anyone who finds a jagged glass topped wall an “Attractive nuisance” can make a hell of a lot more money with internet pron.

  • Um, I’ve worked a lot in Africa and didn’t really consider the walls topped with broken glass a charming part of city life. This isn’t Kinshasa. Don’t leave your bike outside (even inside your fence) and get an alarm system if you need one.

    Plus, it doesn’t help your property values to make your property look like an armed encampment.

    I’m happy to say here in Petworth we’re taking the bars off our windows (we have some windows at ground level with bars and some without…getting rid of them all) and after 10 years here we have never had so much as an attempted break-in.

    • I think what you’re trying to say is that it would be better to put a thief’s head on a spike in your front yard. Once the birds have picked it clean, you can use it as a birdfeeder. No bars, no glass, no fuss.

    • Agreed. Not charming in the least.

    • Agree with PetworthRes – do we really want to live in a city filled with broken glass walls? I’ve seen them elsewhere and its a sad sight. Things are improving, but that’ll just drag everything down.

      I’m not against thorny plants though.

  • andy

    Hire this guy from Baltimore and he’ll even make it look good!

  • I’ve seen it in London.

  • It’s common in a lot of places in the world. I even saw it in Avignon, France recently on higher walls. There were several walls capped with bottles that had the tops shattered off and mounted in mortar.

  • Yeah guys, the question isn’t whether it’s legal or not, but whether you’re liable if someone gets hurt doing it, and believe me you are. Whether there’d be criminal liability, I’m not sure, but you’re definitely going to be paying a lot of money if someone cuts themselves on that.

    Thanks Torts class! 🙂

    • What if they just hurt themselves climbing over a regular wall (into your private property)? Why is it different if you have glass? What if they just fall and crack their heads on concrete inside your yard – are you liable because you should have had soft grass? What if you have a dog in the yard that bites them?

  • A neighbor has done this, in conjunction with a mural and rose bushes. It looks SWEET!

    That said, if some kid hurts himself on it, my neighbors are going to have their pants sued off of them. Way more expensive than a stolen bike, window bars, or an alarm system.

    • I bet they already are paying a premium for homeowner’s (or renter’s) insurance, which includes liability coverage for this sort of thing, no? I bet the premium doesn’t even go up if insurer is advised of the broken glass plan.

  • I once saw an old mattress thrown atop a fence like this.

  • 50lb bicycle? Were the tires made of cement?

  • Broken glass is used atop many of the walls of the Oxford University Colleges.. though the walls were built with troughs on top that were filled with the glass. Rumor was that it was a vestige of when boys would try and sneak back into the college at night after returning from the girls’ colleges after curfew passed and the gates were locked.

  • Try planting stinging nettles along the top of your fence…looks like regular vines, but one touch and the would-be thieves will be sorry! microscopic barbs go straight through shirts and pants, and stick…causing immediate burning and redness that can’t be rubbed or washed off for hours.

  • My dad lives in the French Quarter, and nails are a popular alternative to glass/barbed wire. Varying lengths of nails are nailed through a board, which is then attached–spikes up–to the top of the fence. The spikes are painted to match the colors of the house, and are pretty effective.

  • The back wall of a friend’s house in Georgetown actually has glass embedded in it – the house is from abut 1870, but our guess is the glass was put in sometime in the 1950’s.

    It’s all dull no – no risk – but is amusing.

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