Council Reverses Course on Hedges
By Susan Reines
October 13 -- A controversial ordinance regulating hedge heights could be trimmed back or abolished after the City Council Tuesday night changed course on what has become a heated campaign issue.
The move reverses the council's recent decision to stick with lower front yard limits, a move that spurred a grassroots movement among homeowners, who argued that the half-century old limits violated private property rights.
The council Tuesday did not create a new hedge and fence ordinance to replace the one it suspended in June, but did direct City staff to study options for adding flexibility -- or completely getting rid of -- the laws.
Several council members offered direct apologies to residents who said they believed the council was hostile to residents at a June meeting held after the City's Planning Department sent letters threatening to impose $25,000 a day fines for having hedges or fences above height limits that had not been enforced for decades.
"I know that every member of the council has requested that enforcement first begin with an educational letter, not with a heavy-handed letter," said Council Member Ken Genser, who is running to keep the council seat he has held since 1988. "I think we all apologize for the unpleasantness that occurred."
Council Member Michael Feinstein, who is also running for re-election, and Mayor Pro Tem Kevin McKeown added their apologies, and other council members said they hoped to communicate better with the public in the future.
Despite Mayor Richard Bloom's efforts to keep the upcoming council race out of the discussion, it repeatedly crept in.
The council members' apologies did not stop many residents from asserting they would be voting for opposition candidates such as Bill Bauer, David Cole and Bobby Shriver, the nephew of John F. Kennedy who entered the race after clashing with the council over the hedge ordinance in June.
Shriver, Bauer, candidate Kathryn Morea and former candidate Leah Mendelsohn, who dropped out of the race, all spoke at Tuesday's meeting, which at times felt more like a candidate's forum than a public hearing.
Bloom, who is running for re-election, repeatedly told the public not to mention the election, admonishing even those who spoke in favor of him. But many voiced their candidate preferences and others alleged the council was using the hedge issue as a political tool.
"This is my first time voting," said resident Simone Gordon. "I don't know much about you guys, but what I do know, I don't like. You don't respect private property. I will be voting for Bobby Shriver. He's a good friend and he truly cares about people like us."
The council had said in June that it would not revisit the hedge issue until after November's election, but it resurfaced Tuesday after Feinstein, Genser and Bloom requested that the council discuss directing staff to look into raising the limits and "grandfathering in" existing hedges and fences -- recommendations that were unanimously approved.
Mendelsohn said she launched a run for council because she was upset at the council members' behavior in June, when they halted enforcement of the law but did not increase the 42-inch front yard limit.
"I'm glad you're really listening, but my concern, as well as many of the others, is that you're doing this just because this is an election year," Mendelsohn said, "and we don't trust you at this point."
The council members seemed eager to let the 30 or so concerned residents -- many of them part of a resident's group that organized after the June meeting -- know that they were listening.
"I have been thoroughly listening to you," said Herb Katz, who is up for re-election. "I now believe thoroughly, let the public do what they want to do. And the reason is, this is a different time and a different era." than when the ordinance was written.
Katz advocated asking staff to study the option of abolishing the height laws altogether, a recommendation that was added to the list of things council asked staff to study.
"We over-enforce, we over-rule," Katz added, touching on what seems to have become a hot-button issue after Shriver's foray into the local political fray.
Council members also emphasized that they did not write the height limit law, nor were they the ones who decided to enforce it after years of neglect.
"It's not this council that wrote the ordinance," McKeown said. "We sort of got backed into this."
A few residents spoke in favor of height limits, saying they wanted an open community, but they were far outnumbered by those who said they needed hedges and fences for privacy and safety.
Many of those who wanted to keep their hedges and fences, however, did say they accepted the council members' apologies.
City staff will investigate the possibilities of raising or abolishing height limits and granting exceptions for people who already have hedges or have special circumstances. They also will study the different needs of single-family and multi-family neighborhoods.Representatives of staff said they would likely not be finished with the studies and possible public workshops until 2005.
Copyright 1999-2008 surfsantamonica.com. All Rights Reserved.