Last Tuesday, after many months of community controversy Santa Monica’s City Council directed City staff to draft a new hedge law that will be sensitive to the needs of property owners and their neighbors.
After hearing complaints from many residents about both the height restrictions and the ways in which City employees enforced the City fence/hedge heights ordinance, the Council imposed a moratorium in June, 2004 on the enforcement of the ordinance, unless there are “demonstrable safety issues.”
Enacted in 1948, the ordinance limits fences and hedges in front yards of private houses to 42 inches and side and rear fences and hedges to eight feet – unless they were hazardous or obstructed vision, but it was seldom enforced, until January 2004.
Most residents were unaware of the ordinance and were disturbed and angered by the City’s sudden enforcement of it. Their anger was compounded by the City’s Compliance Order letters, which said that if they didn’t cut their hedges back to comply with the 42-inch limit, they would be fined $25,000 per day with a maximum fine of $500,000. As it turned out, the letter was incorrect; the fine should have been $2,500, but residents were not mollified, and continued to protest.
Last Tuesday. the Council requested that the new draft ordinance grandparent all existing hedges (front, side or back) at their current heights with the proviso that neighbors could object to an existing hedge or fence, based on safety or quality of life issues through a simple low-cost fee process.
Under the draft ordinance, new hedges would have to comply with the 42 inch height limit in front yards, however owners could apply for taller new hedges or an increase in the height of a hedge that is now 42 inches, if certain standards or conditions were met, i.e. if the front yard were a house’s only only open lawn and if neighbors didn’t object.
Council members decided to retain the definition of wall and fence offered by City staff but asked that the definition of hedge be analyzed for possible changes.
Prior to ordering the new ordinance, the Council heard from over two dozen residents, including many people who had spoken at prior hearings on the issue.
Jerry Schwartz told the Council, “Let people make their own decisions. People want some privacy and have the right to have a little privacy. What’s next? Will you want to regulate what color curtains we can put in our windows for people to look at when they walk by? The question is, don’t homeowners have some rights to do what we want to do?”
Myra Robbins echoed Schwartz by noting that when she canvassed the City, “The people of Santa Monica wanted the City to stay out of our lives when it comes to our own homes.” Like others, she complained about the City staff representation of the City-sponsored workshop on the issue. “I attended and participated in (the City-sponsored workshop) and I also read the report (on the workshop) and it was incredibly, incredibly misleading as to what went on.”
Another resident, Eldon Cotton, disagreed and emphasized some regulation was necessary when he stated, “Don’t pit neighbor against neighbor. Instead, have a benchmark that’s reasonable.”
Apartment dweller Dawn Rosenquest also called for regulation, as she and her husband haven’t been successful in getting their landlord to “cut the trees and ivy on the side of the building” so they would have more light in their first floor apartment. The landlord told them he would “only trim if the City makes him” and if they weren’t happy, they should move so he could increase the rent.
Homeowner Paul Collins had another view. To him “there are decorative issues here. There are privacy issues here and there are functional issues about hedges and shrubs.” Therefore, he suggested decisions should be made on a case-by-case basis.
Another homeowner, Richard Nelson, told the Council “I am very discouraged tonight, as I have been on every occasion I’ve come before you because this issue will not be decided tonight…[leaving] us hanging with uncertainty as to whether not our landscaping will survive or not. If we want to make any enhancements we’re at great risk at doing so. Please resolve the issue now. This is incredibly difficult for a lot of us who are proud of our residences and have put a lot of time and effort into landscaping. The City of Santa Monica looks ridiculous in the eyes of adjacent cities.”
Council member Kevin McKeown kicked off the Council’s discussion by responding to those who complained the Council was slow to act on the issue by stating “I’m not happy with how the City handled people on this issue, I don’t think any of us up here are and I hope to some extent we as Council members have made amends by hearing you out in your anger.”
He then apologized “for bringing you back again and again. That’s why it’s important we reach some resolution tonight. We’re talking about and absorbing heat for an ordinance that was written in 1948. I was born in 1948. I want to make sure this ordinance dies before I do.”
Before the unanimous vote on the direction to City staff (Council member Robert Holbrook was absent) Council member Bobby Shriver, who was cited for having non-conforming hedges at his home and included the issue in his Council campaign platform, proposed that the Council to approve an amendment to the motion directing staff to rewrite the ordinance that the processing costs for a complaint should not exceed $30, but the amendment failed by a vote of 4 to 2. Shriver advocated the low fee as it would “convey the idea this is a fast thing, there’s not going to be a lot of time or money spent. No one needs to hire lawyers or do drawings. What we’re striving for is a zoning administrator type process. I don’t want a process coming back to us (from City staff) that costs more than $29.95 or $39.95.”
The draft ordinance will come before the Council for its review in July.
In other business the Council approved the design and placement of Big Blue Bus (BBB) shelters for the new BBB Rapid 3 service. Four of them will be placed in Santa Monica and the remainder in Los Angeles. The new bus service will utilize a special fleet of buses that will connect Santa Monica and LAX via Lincoln Boulevard on weekdays 30 percent faster than buses currently on that route.Council members also approved $7.2 million in contracts to construct Airport Park and extended the lease agreement between the City/Redevelopment Agency with RAND to allow RAND more time to complete demolition and remediation of its former headquarters on property now owned by the City.