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Incumbents Hedge Their Bets

By Jorge Casuso

September 10 -- Less than two months before the City Council elections, three incumbents are revisiting a controversial hedge law that spurred a grassroots movement and thrust a leading challenger into the hotly contested race.

Mayor Richard Bloom and Councilman Ken Genser, as well as Councilman Michael Feinstein, placed discussion items on Tuesday night’s agenda that call for drafting an ordinance that eases restrictions on front-and side-yard hedges.

Drummed up independently of each other, the two items are similar, although Feinstein’s calls for an interim ordinance to be considered next month, while Bloom and Genser’s gives no timeline. Both parties said they were unaware an alternative proposal was being put forth.

The three council members said they acted after receiving a steady flow of emails from constituents responding to a council vote in June that halted enforcement of the City ordinance limiting the heights of private hedges until staff could conduct a more detailed analysis and review possible amendments to the law.

“I hope people relate to this as a legislative response to the emails,” Bloom said. “Somehow, we have to get that info to staff before they come back to us. Now is the time to act, not four or five months from now.”

“What I have found in talking to a lot of people on the issue,” Feinstein said, “is that our earlier direction, which would have let the matter come back after the election, made many feel we were putting off their concerns. I felt it was valid for us to address it now.”

“People could be concerned we wanted to bury this until after the election,” Genser said. “We’re trying to make it clear we’re not.”

Challenger Bobby Shriver, a member of the Kennedy family and a crusader for North of Montana homeowners who oppose the City’s hedge laws, said the move was a victory for the homeowners who lobbied the council and the committee that worked to have the ordinance changed.

“It’s great. It’s a victory for our committee. I’m thrilled,” Shriver said. “The whole concept of having to wait until after the election was itself an unfair idea. You had a lot of terrified people.

“I’m thrilled that the democratic process and the political power of the people have forced this to happen,” said Shriver, who is the nephew of President John F. Kennedy and brother in law of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. “If they didn’t organize, would this be happening? If I wasn’t running, would this be happening?”

Incumbent Herb Katz, who lobbied on the council to increase the hedge heights, said the move by his colleagues was politically motivated.

“The reason is Shriver’s running and there’s a whole backlash.” Katz said. “They originally wanted to bring it up after the election. Now because it has raised a real constituency, they’re backing off and saying, ‘We should study it.’ They’re starting to panic.”

Asked if election politics played a role in the timing, Bloom said. “There are people out there that will make it a political issue. I didn’t make it a political issue. The community made it a political issue. I think it’s a responsible thing to do.”

Genser and Bloom said they placed their item on the agenda after months of negotiations with Shriver and the homeowners committee failed to result in a compromise. Talks broke down in late August, when the committee turned down the council members’ proposal.

“We spent between fifteen and thirty hours meeting and trading drafts and talking,” Bloom said. “A lot of detailed work went on.”

“We thought we had something we could agree with,” Genser said, “but apparently Bobby said he couldn’t sell it to his group. I don’t know which changes they wanted, but this will certainly start the dialogue going.”

Bloom and Genser’s item would ease the restrictions imposed by the current ordinance, which limits the height of front yard hedges to 42 inches and side and back yard hedges to eight feet -- standards commonly violated throughout the city.

Under their proposal, “a property owner with a nonconforming hedge existing as of date certain (suggested: July 1, 2004) may apply for ‘grandparenting.’ Grandparented status will be granted unless a contiguous neighbor can establish the ongoing presence of the hedge causes direct adverse impacts to the contiguous property.”

The proposal also calls for the council, after hearing from the public, to “establish new, specific heights for hedges ‘as of right’ that are higher than the current height limits. Different height limits should be considered” for different circumstances. (see full proposal)

Feinstein’s proposal is more general, but also includes a “grandparenting” clause for existing front yard hedges up to a certain height and takes into account different circumstances. But, unlike Bloom and Genser’s proposal, Feinstein’s sets a timeline, asking staff “to prepare an interim ordinance for return on October 12th.”

Acting quickly, Feinstein said, will hopefully dispel some of the “uncertainty and mistrust” engendered earlier this year when the City sent compliance orders to residents threatening daily $25,000 fines until their non-conforming hedges were trimmed. (The actual fine is $2,500)

“We should deal with the uncertainty and mistrust that we unfortunately created by mishandling the code enforcement last year,” Feinstein said. “We should get something in place even if in the long term we want to amend it as part of the general plan process, but I’m flexible. I really am interested to hear where the community wants to go.”

Genser and Bloom see no need to rush an ordinance through.

“Having an ordinance on the twelfth seems a little quick,” Genser said. “We should listen to the people and see what they want.”

“In my view, there doesn’t have to be a timeline,” Bloom said.

Katz said placing the items on the agenda will only overburden an already busy staff. “Why are we doing this at this last second to study it when it will take away from something staff is doing,” he said.

Katz -- who is counting on the strong backing of homeowners -- has pushed for leaving side and rear hedges “alone,” letting front yard hedges stand if it doesn’t bother the neighbors and allowing taller hedges with the approval of residents on the block.

“I don’t want to inhibit greenery in our city,” Katz said.

As for Shriver, who was propelled into the local political fray when angry homeowners took their case to City Hall, he doesn’t plan to step aside after the group’s victory.

“I’m not withdrawing under any circumstances,” Shriver said. “I’m going to run and win.”

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