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views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Lookout.
Copyright 1999-2008 surfsantamonica.com. All Rights Reserved.
|What I Say
Where Ordinances are Ordinary, the Claude Rains Award and Big Hedges
By Frank Gruber
As a student (and sometimes practitioner) of disingenuousness in all its subtleties and permutations, I have begun to look forward each spring to the City Council's study sessions on the budget.
It's an occasion where aficionados of the self-effacing and philosophical pause can observe masters of the quizzical yet caring look react to the unintended consequences of their years of trying to relieve Santa Monicans of all their complaints and anxieties.
This year the statistic that jumped out at me was not the 110,000 phone calls the Planning Department answered, but an item from the Office of the City Attorney; namely, that in 2003 the City Council enacted 41 new ordinances.
On average, that's one every nine days.
Looked at another way, that's 41 ordinances for a city of 84,000, or one ordinance for every 2,049 people. In 2002 the City enacted only 32 ordinances, or one every 11.4 days, or one for every 2,625 residents.
That's a 22 percent decrease in the number of residents per new ordinance. At that rate, and assuming the City's population remains the same (as it has for 40 years), in only 31 years we will achieve the apotheosis of Squeaky Wheel Government: a perfect ratio of one new ordinance for each resident.
I'm not one of those people who bashes government for governing, but given that (i) the Council met 33 times in 2003, and (ii) Santa Monica isn't facing any genuine crises that might in a less favored locale seriously be considered emergencies, isn't it worrisome that on average, seven council members can't have a meeting without passing 1.25 ordinances?
I mean, let's take it easy. Save some laws for the next year.
* * *
As usual, the Planning Department's report was the highpoint of the study sessions. I still remember last year's session when Council member Ken Genser earned the Claude Rains "I'm shocked, shocked" award for his look of stunned disbelief when Planning Director Suzanne Frick told him that Santa Monica's zoning code was more complicated than that of Los Angeles. I was left speechless myself by Council member Genser's performance, since at that moment he had been enacting complications to the Santa Monica zoning code for half a generation.
It's worth noting that this year, Planning Director Frick preempted any attempt by Council member Genser to repeat his performance on the same question, by explaining to the Council why it would never be possible in Santa Monica to obtain a permit over the internet to re-roof a house. (Hint: The answer had something to do with landmarks and the ARB, and left everyone on the Council except architect Herb Katz eager to change the subject.)
This year Council member Kevin McKeown earned the prestigious Rains award for asking Ms. Frick, with charming insouciance, what the City was doing about the "real challenge" of keeping the Planning Department fully staffed. (Currently, there are seven staff vacancies in Planning, three in Transportation Management, and three in Building and Safety, and hiring and retaining staff in the department has been a chronic problem for several years.)
In reply, Ms. Frick explained, "Santa Monica is a really hard place to work in for a planner." Why? She gave two reasons: because staff had to spend their time dealing with the minutiae of development permits instead of the long-range planning for which they had studied, and because they were "burning out" attending "multiple night meetings."
Ms. Frick didn't need to add that she was talking mostly about late night City Council and Planning Commission meetings, and that in the past five years long range planning in the City had come virtually to a halt as the City Council had reduced development review thresholds to the point that planning staff and the Planning Commission were spending nearly all their time deciding how big a building's planter boxes should be.
Council member McKeown earned the Rains award for asking his question because, as liaison to the Planning Commission, he has for so many nights sat on the dais into the wee hours as staff members go crazy while the commission dismisses their expertise and the work they put into reports, public outreach, and the like.
* * *
At the study session Planning Director Frick also alerted the council to a major substantive proposal her department was making and which the Council will consider as part of the budget, namely that the City should undertake revisions of the Land Use and Circulation Elements of the City's General Plan and the zoning ordinance. I will discuss this proposal in a future column.
* * *
In the meantime, the wheels keep squeaking. The issue of the moment is fences and hedges. In response to complaints from well-heeled and well-shrubbed residents whose hedges are under attack by City inspectors (acting on complaints from neighbors), tomorrow night the City Council will consider whether to review the current law, which allows fences and hedges in front yards up to 42 inches, and along side and rear yards up to eight feet.
As usual, there's a certain amount of Santa Monica hysteria going on, this time partly a function of some famous names and partly a function of the form compliance order the City sends to alleged violators. The City routinely threatens violators that failure to correct a violation "will result" in penalties "up to $25,000 per day."
The problem with this is that the finality of the "will result" part is not true for any violation, since no penalties are assessed until there has been appropriate due process, and the $25,000 part is not true when it comes to fences and hedges.
The $25,000 per day penalty only exists for life threatening conditions, like an overhanging crane. More routine infractions like overly tall hedges top out at $2,499 per day. (In fact, no one at the City I spoke to could recall a hedge or fence case going so far as to require fines.)
So everyone should calm down and the City should revise its compliance orders to explain the law and the process better, including the alleged violator's rights, and incidentally make the City look less like a bully, but again it's worth pointing out that staff has only articulated the unintended consequences of the City Council's obsession with code enforcement.
As readers of my Seaview Terrace columns know, I'm a true believer when it comes to keeping front yards open to view, although I will note that the City's regular practice, at least as I recall from when I was on the Planning Commission, has been to allow "adjustments" up to 48 inches.
But as someone who has lived here in two single-story houses that taller buildings overlooked, I question the purpose of the current limits on side and rear hedges. The current eight-foot limit seems designed for neighborhoods of one-story, single family homes, but that's not how most Santa Monicans live.
For aesthetic reasons, no fence or wall should be higher than eight feet. But where buildings are higher than one story and separated by side and rear yards, it makes sense for privacy, aesthetic and even ecological purposes to allow, if not encourage, plantings that separate adjacent properties, provided, of course, that neighbors are not adversely affected.
While ideally property owners can use trees to accomplish this separation, sometimes in a narrow space a hedge works better. In that case, it's hard to see what harm a hedge that is no higher than the permitted height of a building does. The law should have enough flexibility to allow the City to approve tall hedges without finding the unique circumstances a full-blown variance requires.
Uh-oh. Sounds like another ordinance.
Copyright 1999-2008 surfsantamonica.com. All Rights Reserved.