After another lengthy hearing last Tuesday, Santa Monica’s City Council unanimously approved a new interim hedge and fence ordinance that’s meant to be more sensitive to the needs of property owners and their neighbors.
After hearing complaints from many residents about both hedge height restrictions and the ways in which City employees enforced them last year, the Council imposed a moratorium in June, 2004 on enforcement of the ordinance, unless there are “demonstrable safety issues” and directed staff to draft a new ordinance.
The original 1948 ordinance limited 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 stated that unless outsized hedges were cut back to comply with the 42-inch limit, their owners would be fined $25,000 per day with a maximum of $500,000. According to the City, the letter was incorrect and the fine should have been $2,500 a day, but residents were not mollified, and continued to protest.
Some of the residents who protested last year returned last Tuesday to praise the new ordinance. North of Montana resident Aaron Mendelssohn said the Council had shown him “that an old theory of mine that democracies are self correcting mechanisms turns out to be right because this started off with the City being out of control. The citizens protested and the Council responded by asking staff to make a recommendation that makes a lot of sense.”
Council member Richard Bloom echoed Mendelssohn’s sentiments by noting that the community protest “has really borne fruit for the community…a good and strong compromise.”
Council member Bobby Shriver, whose non-conforming hedges were among those cited by the City and often discussed the issue during his 2004 campaign, and Mayor Pro Tem Herb Katz proposed eliminating hedge height limits from the interim ordinance altogether, but a majority of their colleagues rejected the proposal, and they supported the ordinance with limits.
The interim ordinance responds to some community complaints, while retaining some of the original restrictions. Front yard hedge and fence heights will remain at 42 inches and side and back yard fence height limits will continue to be eight feet, but side and back yard hedges can now grow up to 12 feet, and hedges on side and back yards that are adjacent to alleys will have no height limits.
In a key compromise, the revised ordinance “grandfathers” existing hedges, fences and walls that are taller than the mandated heights. However, “grandfathering” of a hedge, fence or wall may be appealed by an immediate neighbor, if the appeal is heard by the City’s Planning Commission within 60 days after the new ordinance takes effect and the appellant can demonstrate that the hedge, fence or wall adversely affects him or her. In an effort to expedite this process, owners of “grandfathered” hedges will be required to register with the City and residents will be notified by mail about the 60-day deadline.
Also included in the interim ordinance is a new process for handling variances and complaints, rules for decorative objects, guard rails, pergolas and terraced landscapes on sloped lots.
In other business, the Council agreed with the City staff recommendation by voting 5 to 2 to reverse a Landmarks Commission nomination of a California bungalow at 921 19th Street for designation as a landmark, which would have prevented its owner from demolishing it.
The City’s Urban Designer Stephanie Reich explained that the staff did not believe the architecture of the bungalow was sufficiently noteworthy to warrant landmark status and alleged that the Commission used a “broad interpretation of the designation criteria” in making the nomination. She went on to say that in the City’s view “This represents a significant policy choice and a departure from previous practice and widely accepted standards. By [the Commission] using such a broad interpretation of the criteria the designation process could appear to be used as a process to halt development rather than as a means to protect the City’s cultural heritage.”
The City staff report also claimed that the bungalow’s designation as a landmark would set a precedent that “may devalue the cultural and historical significance of other landmarks that have been designated using appropriate application of the [landmark] criteria.”
Mayor Pam O’Connor, a historic preservation consultant, agreed with City staff, and said that the fact that a building is “charming and unusual” does not make it “historically significant,” adding that she “finds it troubling that the threshold for [landmark designation] is getting lower and lower and part of the worry I have about that is we have to be careful about how we apply these [federal] laws and designate … because a pattern of applying too low a threshold will start diluting what historic preservation is about.”
Council member Kevin McKeown, Council liaison to the Landmarks Commission, disagreed, saying, “I hear from people in the community all the time people’s regret and concern that we seem to be losing the history of our community. So in looking at this, I look at this not as this one is the last one on the block. I agree we shouldn’t be choosing buildings because it’s the last one on the block. Perhaps, the problem is we’re letting buildings like this become the last one on the block too easily.”
McKeown criticized the tone of the staff report for “inadvertently hinting that the Landmarks Commission acted out of motives other than the ones they are supposed to have [by attempting to halt development].”
Council member Ken Genser was also critical, saying that the staff “introduced a level of political rhetoric I wouldn’t expect to see in a staff report.”
City Manager Susan McCarthy defended the report, saying, “staff would not be carrying our responsibility to you if they did not point out … that this particular decision may set a different threshold” for future landmark decisions, but added that she “regretted the wording was inartful.”
Landmarks Commission Chair Roger Genser defended his Commission’s decision, saying that he and other Commission members “really took umbrage at some of the implications of the staff report,” adding that the decision was made “after a very thorough analysis by the Commission. There was never any discussion about development or stopping development and I think it’s a bold leap by our staff to interject such an allegation into a staff report.”
Landmarks Commissioner Ruthann Lehrer, who is an architectural historian, also defended the Commission’s decision, noting that the “Commission focused only on the merits of the property in applying the [Landmarks] ordinance,” and pointing out that the property had unique Craftsman bungalow architectural style features not found in other bungalows in the City. She also explained that the house was not on the 1992-1993 Historic Resources Inventory list because when the inventory was done “they were looking at districts and groups of buildings,” rather than individual buildings. Last month, at the behest of the Commission, the Council allocated funds to complete the inventory.
Five Council members voted to uphold the owner’s appeal, while McKeown and Genser voted against it.
Council members also made the following appointments to the City’s boards and commissions:
Accessibility Appeals Board—Elizabeth Bancroft, John Whitbread
Airport Commission—Yoram Tal
Architectural Review Board—Joan Charles, Lynn Robb
Arts Commission—Suchi Branfman, Rachel Lachowicz
Bayside District Corporation—Bill Tucker, John Warfel, Jennifer Hranilovich
Building & Safety Commission—Kristina Andresen, Michael Ishler, David Schaffer
Commission for the Senior Community—Joel Greenberg, Barry Seid
Commission on the Status of Women—Geraldine Starr, Sarah Stegemoeller , Ana Jara
Convention & Visitors Bureau—Bruce Cameron, Nat Trives, Nancy Desser
Disabilities Commission—Amy Boersma, Samuel Genensky, Audrey Parker
Housing Commission—Chloe Bird, Victor Ludwig, Lewis Steele, Allan Tainsky
Landmarks Commission—John Berley, Nina Fresco
Library Board—Dan Stern
Personnel Board—Azita Mosbat
Planning Commission—Hank Koning
Recreation & Parks Commission—Alex MunozSocial Services Commission—Samoan Barish