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Is This Balcony Garden Illegal?

by Fern on May 26, 2011

in General

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After three years in law school and a lifetime of contrarian thinking, Mike Lieberman’s post about a building inspector suggesting his balcony garden violated LA City fire code (or possibly building codes) raised the hair on the back of my neck. Something similar happened to me when the woman who manages my condo’s home owners’ association (HOA) tried to suggest that my balcony garden was in violation of our community rules. Yeah right. Nice try lady. I’ve actually read our rules, and nothing on my balcony is in violation of them. Actually, my balcony railing planter is a violation, but I figure I can keep it so long as the president of the HOA is violating the same rule. But I digress.

I researched LA City Fire and Building Codes to see if it is possible that Mike’s balcony garden (and the thousands of other balcony gardens in LA) did in fact violate some sort of code. According to Section 57.12.03, “No person shall cause to be placed, stored, or maintained upon any roof or balcony… any material or object which may interfere with egress or Fire Department operations in case of fire or other emergency.” Considering that the local fire department stopped by and they said it was fine, I think Mike can rest assured that his plants are not violating city fire codes.

Whew. Balcony garden crisis averted.

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{ 27 comments… read them below or add one }

alycia May 26, 2011 at 8:12 pm

ahhh omg that would make me so enraged if someone told me my patio (the one outside area that is MINE and makes me happy) is violating some crappy rule! i about lost it when my apartment complex told me to take down my window box and 3 potted plants from the ledge (a very wide ledge at that), but i admit it was kind of dangerous since I am on the 3rd floor, but it never fell and wouldn’t because its so heavy. i hate HOA’s too. grrr! ok vent over :)

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Mike Lieberman May 26, 2011 at 8:32 pm

Thanks for raising awareness to this matter Fern. To be clear it is not necessary for anyone to use or cross over the balcony to exit their apartments. All four of the apartments have clear access to stairways.

I’ve been in contact with the Los Angeles Housing Department to find out what the deal is. The saga is continuing and I’ll be sure to keep you updated.

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Fern May 27, 2011 at 2:55 pm

Mike–If I was the lawyer defending the building inspector’s POV, I would argue that the fire code doesn’t specify whether or not a balcony is the only passage way for people to exit or not. It is possible that the the alternate exits could be blocked in an emergency, and people coming from other parts of the complex would need to move through your balcony to exit the building. Or, it is possible that firefighters might need your balcony to access the building for fire fighting purposes. Which is why I think it’s important that the fire department came out and said that your plants aren’t blocking their access, should they need it.

Deborah Hansen-Ching May 26, 2011 at 9:16 pm

Coincidentally, my balcony garden on the second floor of a condominium was challenged by my downstairs neighbor. Her objections included the excess water getting her concrete wet (!), and the possibility of my hanging baskets falling on her head should she be walking by. Our property management company intervened to assure me that my garden was legal (and had been for 25 years). I think there are those that have too much time on their hands.

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Totally Inept Balcony Gardener May 27, 2011 at 1:38 am

It is always such a tricky line and some regulations are just unreasonable. Wonderful, cared for greenery or a stale, empty balcony space, I know which one I would choose! Besides can’t you scale one of the plants down if fire hits??? Here in mt Melbourne place it is more the body corporate to worry about. Luckily all they currently care about is that the drains are clear (no mention that they put undersized drains in!!!) and if it is in keeping with the building.

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Annie Haven | Authentic Haven Brand May 27, 2011 at 7:13 am

Great post Fern and I am sorry to hear Mike has city government on him about his balcony garden. Outside of an egress Fire Safety issue the only concerns I could see them having with his or any ones balcony garden would be purely a “structural” (weight) and or damage from water run off causing dry rot to the building. Either way it’s just not fun to have to battle City Hall or an HOA

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Amy@GreenGardenista May 27, 2011 at 10:29 am

I’ve had some strange encounters with retired building inspectors, and retired fire marshals, who’s odd interpretations of guidelines have caused me problems too, or at the least wasted time, and needless upset to community gardeners. In my case it’s been the retired folks who’ve all but called their congressman over issues that don’t bother the current professionals in their field one bit. Some folks just seem to get something from stirring the pot.

I hope the story plays out in Mike’s favor in the future as well!

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Fern May 27, 2011 at 2:57 pm

Or maybe they’re just bored in retirement and want to feel important again?

Kane @ Seattle Homestead May 27, 2011 at 12:03 pm

Nothing illegal about that, but Mike needs some trellising behind those buckets!

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Susan May 27, 2011 at 1:04 pm

I love when people like to pass themselves off as authorities on codes and rules but have never even attempted to read them. However, here in France, there are rules and counter-rules and reforms that has the préfecture contradicting the mairie who disagrees with the consulate and so forth. So everyone just does what they want, then gets mad when someone else does the same thing. I’m expecting my downstairs neighbor to yell at me for water dripping from my balcony, however they store their trash on thier balcony and it blowns onto the grass below and the whole neighborhood has windowboxes.

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Brenda May 27, 2011 at 2:30 pm

My condo association has patio rules. We are not allowed to grow any fruit & tomatoes. Seriously, it is limited to fruit and tomatoes. I can grow greens, herbs, etc. but not strawberries & tomatoes. And, if I harvest on a regular basis they will never know. I don’t think my HOA would know a tomato plant if it fell on them. But, I digress.
When I purchased this wasn’t in the rulebook. However an owner neglected to harvest and, well, the squirrels did it for her. This is my first garden (I have two community plots and a patio garden) and I am ready to fight this silly HOA rule.

I hope this story and stories not written about play out in the gardeners’ favor.

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Fern May 27, 2011 at 2:59 pm

They banned tomatoes and strawberries because of a squirrel? That’s really weird. Why didn’t they ban unkempt gardens instead? I really hate how overly regulated our lives are becoming.

Kimberly May 27, 2011 at 2:36 pm

Wow, you had me scared for a second, because Santa Clara County has crazy strict fire codes that keep changing too. Though I keep worrying my landlord is going to freak out over my garden storage, I have a stack of a bunch of ceramic containers I’m not using now, not to mention bins full of soil and junk.

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Fern May 27, 2011 at 3:00 pm

Knowing your landlord, he’s going to start adding crazy penalties onto your rent because of your stored pots.

Barb Schlegel May 27, 2011 at 3:34 pm

What is the point of having a balcony, which I presume is a selling point, if you can’t use it? Anything one puts on a balcony, be it patio furniture, a table and chairs, or plants, it could all be seen as an impediment to a firefighter. If the balcony is only accessible from one’s own apartment, it should be a non-issue. I believe that if firemen needed to access someone’s private balcony, say to gain access to a neighbors private balcony for removal of occupants, they will find a way to move anything in their way, very quickly.

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Coletta (rhymes With Velveeta) May 28, 2011 at 8:13 am

Our apartment complex rules state that nothing other than PATIO furniture and potted plants are allowed on our balconies….but they don’t enforce ANY rules. You should see some of the ghetto stuff people do to balconies that are in full view of everyone else.
1980′s Lazy Boy Recliners, full sized living room sectionals, large trash cans, bikes, toys, A FRIDGE.
I am all for rules that make it so you have to keep your space PRETTY!

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Ali May 28, 2011 at 8:52 am

WOW! I really hate that!!! What kind of society are we developing where growing and using your own food in your owned or legally rented space is regulated. It used to be encouraged for people to garden and grow their own food….

I hope that you win Mike…what a crazy messed up drama!!!

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Lyn May 28, 2011 at 9:06 am

WOW! I dare say I’m lucky, here in my housing society in India, we can grow almost anything so long as it doesn’t trouble the neighbours. I’m lucky to have a back and front yard with plenty of plants-roses, avocado, succulents oriental lilies, passion fruit and so on. I also have Safadella Jasmine and causuarina( it was growing out of a crack in my wall!) on my terrace. Have even placed a few ppots on my bedroom balcony! I do hope Mike wins his arguement for the benefit of his garden!

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Tony May 30, 2011 at 7:28 pm

Alycia, if they are concerned about having the pots fall from the balcony, what you can do is anchor them. Just take some steel wire, loop it around the pot, and then twist it off so that it’s secure.

That should take care of any concerns over the plants falling on someone.

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Therese Z May 31, 2011 at 6:48 am

As a condo owner AND a building manager (not residential any more, thank heavens), I know the rules seem stupid but in this litigious society, you have to protect yourself as an association.

So no “crops” (no fruit or veggies), to keep down the rats and squirrels or small child who picks and eats a strawberry growing right at their height and not behind a fence, and has an allergic reaction, no hanging anything outside of a railing, so it can’t fall (hazard) or drip (annoyance). And no blocking fire exits or passageways or stairwells – you have to leave a “man-width” (different under different codes and different building sizes) and one wall should remain unobstructed, so people can feel their way along it.

Your photo looks like it’s in violation of general state-level fire exit rules at least here in the Midwest. If the containers were all on the railing side only, it would probably be fine.

People are amazingly piggy and many condo rules exist just to keep the piggishness down. Give them a chance, and they’d store old cars on their balconies.

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Lisa June 26, 2011 at 2:08 am

Makes perfect sense to me, it seems that anywhere you have a large concentration of people in a building, you need some rules to maintain safe living conditions for everyone.

Lisa June 1, 2011 at 11:18 am

I think the 5 gallon plastic buckets are incredibly ugly and I wouldn’t want them in my apartment complex. Plastic pots would be fine, or disguise the paint buckets somehow. I garden in containers too, but no buckets, that’s horribly tacky.

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Amylea June 22, 2011 at 9:41 am

It’s called repurosing and is a form of recycling. THAT is beauty! I am proud that my neighbors can see in my mini patio herb garden which local brands of organic yoghuts I supported, back before I started making my own!

Lisa June 29, 2011 at 11:02 am

hmmm, my reply to amylea was deleted. ok I guess I shouldn’t let her reply irk me so here I go again. I understand repurposing, I do it all the time. I recycle lots of things, I buy used pots and have found some great containers in other folks’ trash, and I carry them home (often to the chagrin of my dear husband) I give away things for others to repurpose or recycle in some way. All I am saying is this picture of this container garden is very unappealing, and I know there are ways to make it look nicer with screens or some other bit of creativity. And if there are safety issues here, they should be addressed to ensure the safety of all who live in the building. I would complain if I were a resident of this complex.

Cathy June 29, 2011 at 12:05 pm

It’s funny how “ten” of us can all look at something and think “ten” different things!!!
I looked at the white paint pails and thought, “What a great idea! Relatively cheap and deep enough to allow plants to grow deep, sturdy roots. On the other hand, I do agree they are ugly and I would likely buy a can of spray paint for plastic and tart them up a bit!!!
It’s obvious Mike likes them white so big deal.

Garden Hoe June 5, 2011 at 6:52 am

Two weeks ago I had a mini green house on my porch filled with young plants waiting to be planted. There was a horrible storm and the whole thing toppled over. Dumping a mountain of soil all over my porch and the downstairs neighbor’s porch. I’m so glad my neighbor’s are tolerant!

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greg draiss June 6, 2011 at 8:21 am

INSANE!
I live in a private community with an HOA. Luckily though some of their LAWS are rediculous at best they do not enforce them. One Florida HOA actually forbids veggie gardens but mandates lush lawns. Hey I like lawns…………but gimme a break

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