The Santa Monica City Council made a variety of changes to the city’s fence, hedge and wall ordinance and height limits Tuesday, May 10th.
Councilmembers gave city staff directions to come back in July with a new draft ordinance based on those recommendations.
“If hedges are to be regulated, a more clear definition than what is currently in the code is needed,” said Amanda Schachter, city planning manager.
“One of the problems with the current definition is that enforcement is difficult because of broad language,” Schachter said.
Currently, a hedge is defined as a barrier of plant material functioning as an enclosure or used for screening.
The maximum height limit for a hedge is 42 inches within the front yard setback, typically 20 feet from the front property line but ranging from ten to 40 feet.
For the past two years, residents have been upset that the city chose to “suddenly” enforce the hedge ordinance and height limits after code enforcement had been inactive for several previous decades.
Residents vehemently protested because they say the city does not have the right to regulate hedges on private property and took issue with the $25,000 per day fines for non-compliance with the ordinance.
Residents want to keep high hedges for privacy and aesthetic reasons.
“My husband and I were cited last year because of our hedge,” said resident Rachel Rome.
“I spent a lot of time canvassing and talking to people, and an overwhelming majority of people say we should be allowed the freedom to have the hedge height that we want,” Rome said.
Rome said her hedges offer privacy because she lives in a one-story home with a two-story home “towering” next door.
Councilmember Bobby Shriver received a citation because the city said his yard hedges in the posh North of Montana neighborhood were too high.
The citation was the catalyst for his decision to run for public office for the first time.
“The first citations sent out were under criminal law and the second citations sent out were under civil law using the figure of $25,000 per day,” Shriver said.
“This was a first-class mess and should never have happened, because working-class people who have lived here for many years were scared,” Shriver said.
David Mamet, a playwright and Santa Monica resident, wrote a guest column in the Los Angeles Times accusing the City Council of enforcing the code because the city could make profits off of the hefty fines during a sluggish economy.
City officials said making a profit was never a factor in their decision-making process.
“On the occasions that council discussed code enforcement and increasing staff, councilmembers made a point that we would not make money on code enforcement,” said city manager Susan McCarthy.
“Making a profit was certainly not the reason for the direction we were given at the time because code enforcement costs the city money and is not a moneymaker,” McCarthy said.
Last year, councilmembers decided not to enforce the current ordinance until a final decision could be made on a new ordinance.
Last week, councilmembers recommended that the following regulations be reflected in a draft ordinance that would be further discussed in July:
n All existing hedges (front side or back) would be “grandparented” at their current heights with an opportunity for adjacent neighbors to object.
A ruling on existing hedges would be made based on safety and “extreme” quality of life standards through a “simple, minimal fee process” with the burden of proof placed on the adjacent neighbor.
n The current 42-inch front yard limit would be maintained for any new hedge installation.
n Existing and new hedges could be higher than 42 inches if adjacent neighbors do not object and standards are met such as that the home is on a busy street or the front yard is the home’s only open lawn.
The process for requesting height variances would also be a “simple and low-cost” process.
Councilmembers accepted current definitions for fences and walls.
Slight modifications were made to fence and wall maximum height limits.
Some residents want the city to lower the fence, hedge and wall limits for safety and environmental reasons.
Residents who live in apartment buildings want heights lowered so that natural light can enter their units.
In 1966, Santa Monica resident Candy Arnold’s younger sister was struck and killed by a car pulling out of a driveway behind a high fence.
“She was playing on the sidewalk, approached a driveway and waited to cross because she saw taillights,” Arnold said. “She waited and waited, but the car did not move.
“As she walked across the driveway, she was struck by the car and thrown into the street.
“The fence was too high and the driver did not see her.”
Arnold said she was recently walking on a sidewalk and stopped because a high hedge was next to a driveway.
As she peered around the hedge, she said a driver pulled his sports utility vehicle out of the driveway “very quickly, a cell phone in his hand, totally oblivious to the fact that I was there.”
Councilmembers agreed to include safety considerations and said front yard hedges near driveways would have to be cut at an angle away from the sidewalk.
“There have to be strong standards for safety because many of the safety concerns about driveways and children are extremely important,” Shriver said.
McCarthy said the Santa Monica Police and Fire Departments have not taken official positions on the safety of high hedges, fences and walls.
She said the departments make recommendations based on each situation.
“We are absorbing heat for an ordinance that was written in 1948,” said Councilmember Kevin McKeown. “There are people who have legitimate concerns about over-height hedges; then there is the aesthetics question we are hearing from the community.
“Let’s look at what we can do that works for the greatest number of people.”