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Planning Commission: Hedges Again:

For the last five years, hedge, fence, and wall heights have been an issue in Santa Monica and the issue continues be a source of controversy as the City attempts to legislate a solution.

Last Wednesday, September 3, the City’s Planning Commission reviewed the latest proposal by the City which, if approved by the City Council, would become a permanent ordinance on the issue. An interim hedge, fence, and wall height ordinance was adopted by the City Council in September 2005. That ordinance, according to the presentation given by City staff at the September 3 meeting, “established objective standards, increased flexibility to allow modifications, retained nonconforming fences, walls, and hedges, and established objection and appeal procedures” for neighbors who had issues with non-conforming hedges, walls, or fences. That ordinance was later extended and modified to require registration of nonconforming fences, walls, and hedges, require maintenance of hedges, and provide adjoining property owners the right to remove overhanging portions of hedges.

The proposed permanent ordinance makes the interim standards permanent; contains clear standards for height limits, height measurements, and maintenance; gives flexibility for modification procedures and ornamental structures; and retains nonconforming fences, walls, and hedges. The proposed repair and replacement standards require that less than 50 percent of a nonconforming hedge, fence, or wall may be replaced over any period of time, and if 50 percent or more of one is removed, the entire fence, wall, or hedge must be made to comply.

After the presentation, the Commission heard from over 20 speakers. Steve Schwartz received a round of applause after he stated, “It’s astonishing to me that the Planning Commission allows 30-foot condo complexes to go in all over the City without objection to them towering over [neighboring] buildings but has a problem potentially with allowing us to maintain a fence or hedge that is higher than the standards.”

Stephanie Barbinol, like others, asked that the 50 percent language be eliminated “to allow people to repair their grandparented fences, hedges, and walls perpetually so we don’t undermine the whole arduous process we went through to get to this place tonight.”

Kay Patterson emphasized like many others that an ordinance that addresses the issues with a one-size-fits-all approach wasn’t acceptable, and so any ordinance approved by the City should have conditions to consider the issue “on a case by case basis.”

The Commission responded by recommending to the City Council that the 50 percent rule for nonconforming hedges, fences, and walls be removed. They also suggested that there be some absolute height limit, which should be based upon the existing heights of any adjacent structures near the non-conforming item or heights zoned for the item’s area. Commission members also felt it was important to simplify the ordinance as much as possible so it could be enforced easily. They would like very specific issues to be addressed on a case-by-case basis by the City’s code enforcement department.

The Commission’s recommendations will be reviewed by the City Council in the near future.

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