Santa Monica’s Planning Commission held a lengthy discussion to determine the best way to handle appeals for fences, walls, and/or hedges.
After much debate, the Commission voted unanimously to write a letter to the City Manager and the City Council requesting that a contract person be hired to handle the City staff portion of the appeals.
The need for a contract person to expedite the process was decided after representatives from the Planning Department told the Commission they did not have the staff time right now to process the appeals, and wouldn’t have time until August of this year due to the staff’s focus on the City’s ongoing update of its Land Use and Circulation Elements, various other projects, and regularly scheduled meetings.
City staff also announced that the Commission would have to wait until March 2 to discuss the hearing process, rules, procedures, what appellants have to present, and the application of standards.
Planning Board members also heard from some of those who have filed appeals at the February 6 meeting. Twelfth Street resident Katie Santore told the Commission, “Our appeals have been in limbo for two years. What has the City been doing for two years?” She also expressed her dismay with the fact that she and others “thought today we were coming to discuss the procedures [for the appeals]…only to find out that has to be put off until another meeting.”
Monika Bialas criticized the decision to hire a contract person. “To hear that you want to hire a contract person, an outside person who probably doesn’t live in our City or can’t identify with our problems, is absurd,” said Bialas. “We will have to reeducate that person.”
City staff also notified the Commission that there were 28 fence, wall, and/or hedge objection appeals currently waiting for Planning Commission action, and that there is no time frame for when the appeals need to be heard. They estimated that each appeal would require an hour and a half of the Commission’s time if they follow the City Council’s procedure for the appeal hearing. This process would include a staff presentation, appellant and neighbor presentations, public speakers, and Commission deliberation. They also noted that there would be significant staff time involved because each of these cases has to be reviewed by them, someone has to go out to the site, and a report has to be prepared.
This issue started when the original 1948 ordinance which 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 – was suddenly enforced by the City beginning in January of 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.