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By Frank Gruber

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then City Council candidate Bobby Shriver is floating around Santa Monica now bathed in the glow of appreciation for the sincerest flattery three Council incumbents, Ken Genser, Richard Bloom and Michael Feinstein could have shown him by rushing to introduce measures to accelerate and pre-judge the council's measured review of the City's hedge laws. ("Incumbents Hedge Their Bets," September 9, 2004)

That is, of course, if flattery by its very nature can be sincere: Flatter: "to praise excessively esp. from motives of self-interest"; Flattery: "the act or practice of flattering" (Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary).

Something, or, rather, someone, has unnerved the usually cool, calm and collected manner council incumbents typically affect; after all, it's been many years since an incumbent has lost a bid for reelection.

In particular, candidates Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights (SMRR) endorse usually campaign with a lot more confidence, stressing SMRR's largely positive platform and their own records of responding to every whine and whimper from aggrieved constituents.

And all this anxiety over hedges? Hedge-angst seems to me to be one of those homeowner issues without a lot of political bounce, because there aren't many voters who care. Remember the proposition to restrict the power of the Landmarks Commission over single-family houses? It was the hottest thing and then ... fizzle.

Only 30 or 40 percent of Santa Monicans live in single-family houses, and as with landmarking, even those who do care about hedge heights are divided on the main point of disagreement, the height of front yard hedges and how the law should be enforced.

So what's the big deal?

I was only able to attend one day of the Chamber of Commerce's interviews with candidates, but it was the day that both Shriver and Genser appeared.

Regarding Shriver, the interesting points were that in seeking the Chamber's endorsement, he didn't shy away from the pro-social services positions that go with his background, vis-à-vis the homeless, for instance, thus indicating he wants to keep his lines of communication open to Santa Monica's liberal majority, and that he seemed to be basing most of his campaign on an attack that was simultaneously both pointed and vague on the "attitude" of City Hall.

Genser emphasized, among other things, that he was always available to listen to constituents, including business and property owners, to try to get the City's bureaucracy to work. But that might be the root of the incumbents' problem.

After years of squeaky wheel government, which has meant reams of new laws and procedures, and millions spent and many hired in the cause of "code enforcement," policies that appeal to a small group of complainers are starting to annoy a larger group of usually quiet residents who don't like receiving heavy-handed letters threatening them with daily $25,000 fines and who can't get their second-story additions approved.

You can't separate "code enforcement" from Kelly Olsen, the former Chair of the Planning Commission, and the other Planning Commissioners Genser, Bloom, Feinstein and Kevin McKeown started electing in 1999. It was Olsen and the Planning Commission who put code enforcement at the top of the political agenda.

Feinstein, at least, can say that he changed his mind and voted not to reappoint Olsen for a second term, but Genser and Bloom stuck with the Great Enforcer to the very end.


Meanwhile, there is the substance of the proposals.

Back in June when hedges came before the Council I opined that the City's side and rear yard restrictions need revising based on changes in building in Santa Monica over the past 50 years. ("WHAT I SAY: Where Ordinances Are Ordinary," June 7, 2004) But the issues are complex and the Council should let staff deal with them on the timetable Council originally set. ("Hedge Owners Get Reprieve," June 10, 2004)

Michael Feinstein is now asking staff to accelerate the schedule and allow the Council to vote on an ordinance in October, but as Ken Genser said in June, "We should just wait until we have the (whole) ordinance together... The city is not going to fall apart if we put this off for five months. We should go about this more calmly and in a more organized fashion."

Genser and Bloom are not moving as fast as Feinstein, but they are asking Council to incorporate certain ideas on hedges they have discussed with a homeowners' committee into a draft ordinance. The ordinance like any other ordinance would be subject to public comment, but there is no reason to prejudge the issue before staff does its own research. The proper thing to do is refer the ideas the council members discussed with the homeowners to staff and let them consider the ideas as part of the mix.

There is one advantage with proceeding apace, however. The obnoxious hedge I'm most familiar with, a certain fourteen-footer that towers over the Seaview Terrace walk street, the hedge the Planning Commission finally ordered cut down back in May, is on temporary (one hopes) reprieve.

That hedge on Seaview Terrace (Photo by Frank Gruber)

Planning staff believes that this hedge, which has been subject to an enforcement action for more than a year, is covered by the moratorium on hedge enforcement the Council enacted in June, and are waiting for final Council action before bringing it back to the Planning Commission for the final paperwork.

The Seaview Terrace hedge saga also illustrates the biggest flaw with the Genser/Bloom proposals, which would "grandparent" existing front yard hedges unless a contiguous neighbor objects. But a contiguous neighbor may be shy about complaining, and the purpose of a front yard hedge law is to make a more beautiful city for everyone who uses the streets, not just next door neighbors.

* * *

I'm a little embarrassed to spend so may words on the election and hedges when the local government calendar is crowded this week with big issues. For instance:

Tonight the Landmarks Commission is deciding whether a nondescript bungalow with "craftsmen-style elements" (to quote from the staff report) deserves landmark status. While Planning Staff has concluded that the house, at 921 19th Street, does not meet the City's criteria for designation, the City's outside consultants say it does. So the meeting should be interesting. Here's a picture of the house:

Even before getting to hedges, tomorrow night's City Council agenda is packed with big stuff, e.g.:

* The Lantana development. This is important for keeping the movie industry from running away. The big remaining issues have come down to how much money the City can get from the developer for childcare programs and which of seven "neighborhood protection" traffic plans the council will choose.

As for the money, the City is asking for nearly a million dollars a year for five years; that's almost five dollars a year per square foot of building, so expect some hard negotiating from the developer.

As for the traffic plan, why the City has to choose now mystifies me. Wouldn't it make more sense to build the thing and see what the traffic impacts are in real life, as opposed in some computer model? The City can get the developer to escrow the money.

Maybe, once the buildings are there, the traffic impacts will be so slight that the City and the neighbors will determine that they don't have to blockade their neighborhood after all, and the money can be used for... childcare!

* Promenade restaurants. The Council will consider numerous proposals to encourage more restaurants on the Promenade, most of which are good, and other proposals to discourage large retail stores, which seem, given what's been going on downtown (i.e., it's doing fine without the council's help, and new stores and restaurants are opening all over), unnecessary at best and dangerously micro-managing at worst.

* Designation of smoking areas on the Pier, about which I'm sure my readers are happy I have no opinion.

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