The Santa Monica City Council unanimously approved an interim ordinance to extend a current interim ordinance — adopt- ed in 2005 — modifying fence, wall and hedge regulations, at its meeting Tuesday, July 24th.

The ordinance clarifies the criteria for assessing objection appeals; requires all legal nonconforming fences, walls and hedges to be registered; requires the maintenance of hedges; and specifies a self-help remedy for property owners affected by overhanging hedges, said Planning and Community Development director Eileen Fogarty.

This ordinance will extend to January 9th, 2010, but the City Council directed city staff to work on a permanent ordinance to be presented to the council next year.

While this ordinance applies to fences, walls and hedges, the attention of this ordinance has largely been related to the hedges and the “hedge war” among some of the city’s residents — those who have hedges, and those who feel their neighbors’ hedges are reducing their quality of life.

Members of the City Council have said that they want to make the ordinance fair to both sides — hedge owners and their neighbors.

“I think this ordinance gives a person who is in objection [to a hedge] more of an opportunity to demonstrate a quality of life impact,” says Jon Lait, principal planner for the Planning and Community Development Department for the city. Lait pointed out that the burden of proof is on the objector to demonstrate a quality of life impact.

“And I think this gives people more opportunity to demonstrate that impact, consistent with the council’s original intent,” he said.

Some of the modifications to the ordinance include:

… clarifying the criteria for evaluating objection appeal applications to enable the Planning Commission to effectively evaluate the pending appeals;

… requiring all legal nonconforming fences, walls and hedges be registered with the city; and

… requiring hedges to be maintained and authorizing adjoining property owners to remove those portions of the hedge that encroach over the property lines (“overhanging”) and to recover all costs incurred through a civil action pursued by the adjoining property owner.

“The source of a lot of complaints has to do with overhanging hedges,” says Lait. “This maintenance provision allows a person affected by a hedge, upon giving notice to their neighbor, to remedy the situation if the hedge owner fails to remedy the situation — and also to try to recoup the costs in court.”

Also, owners of legal nonconforming fences, walls and hedges have until November 15th to register them.

After hearing from 18 members of the public — both hedge owners and angry neighbors expressing quality of life impacts — the council approved the interim ordinance, added some clarification language and directed city staff to work on the permanent ordinance.

Mayor Richard Bloom, Councilman Kevin McKeown and Councilwoman Pam O’Connor were not at the meeting.

The second and final reading of the interim ordinance and voting to adopt it will take place at a future council meeting.