Santa Monica’s Planning Commission voted unanimously last Wednesday to recommend to the City Council that it retain current hedge, fence and wall regulations, but relax its enforcement until the City completes its revision of the land use and circulation elements in its General Plan.
Since 1948, the height limit in the city has been 42 inches on fences and hedges in front yards of private residences. Limits on side and rear yard fences and hedges are currently eight feet — unless a fence/hedge is a hazard and/or visual obstruction. Under the current ordinance, variances may be granted.
According to a June City staff report, “the City’s land use and zoning policies related to front yard fence heights are intended to promote residential neighborhoods with open yards, rather than streets lined with enclosed private spaces…[and based] upon the design principle that active pedestrian environments foster neighborhood interaction and result in a more livable community.”
In addition, according to the report, lower fence and hedge heights “allow for greater effectiveness for police patrolling” and minimize blockage of air and light to neighboring properties.
The Commission’s decision reflected Chair Barbara Brown’s assertion that “we shouldn’t be put to this at this time. The things that we have to consider are all best taken up in the context of the implementation of the vision that this City is going to have for the future. Once we get that vision the way to implement that is the zoning ordinance and this is where the regulations on hedges, fences and walls go. We don’t have the preliminary report on the vision of the citizens of this City.”
In January, 2004, when the City accelerated the issuance of citations to hedge owners, many residents immediately protested, objecting to both the height limits and what they saw as excessive penalties. At that point, the Council ordered the staff to reexamine the regulations.
At Wednesday night’s meeting, the Commission heard from over 20 residents — some of whom favored regulations and some of whom didn’t.
North of Montana property owner Irwin Waldman said, “The overwhelming majority of homeowners do not want these regulations, while the overwhelming majority of renters don’t care one way or the other.”
Another North of Montana property owner, Aaron Mendelsohn, questioned the “constitutionality” of the City regulating what people do on private property. He then said that disputes over heights “be handled between neighbors,” with dispute resolution services available to help neighbors resolve their differences.
Joan Robey, an Ocean park property owner, told the Board that she “finds it ludicrous that the rights of pedestrians are greater than a property owner.”
Some property owners favored the regulations. Cynthia Cotton, who owns a home North of Montana, asked the Commission to maintain the existing regulations so that she could “be protected from enclosures on one or two sides of my property with high fences and hedges.”
Renter Dawn Rosenquist also supported the regulations because tall trees by her apartment have “really affected my quality of life.” Susan Freeman, speaking for her condo, agreed.
Ocean Park property owner Jacob Samuel said, “Santa Monica tries to promote economic diversity, Santa Monica tries to promote ethnic diversity. Santa Monica should promote landscape diversity. There’s incredible differences in the neighborhoods in Santa Monica … you have North of Montana, Ocean Park, Sunset Park and to try to have a blanket law enforced that was written in 1948 is ridiculous.”
If the Council decides to change the current ordinance when it reviews it in May, the Commission suggested that enforcement be “complaint driven,” that neighbors be encouraged to work out problems themselves, and that dispute resolution service should be available. It also recommended that a variance procedure should be created to deal with items such as pergolas and arbors and issues of privacy and views.