PART II: The Roots of Controversy
By Susan Reines
October 29 -- From Seattle to Cleveland to Vienna, people are talking about Santa Monica's hedges.
The infamous controversy over the City's limit on the height of hedges has sent shock waves through the City Council election. It brought the nephew of John F. Kennedy into the political arena, and a new group frustrated with City Hall bureaucracy and eager to unseat the longstanding council majority seems to be sprouting every day.
Although the issue appeared to explode all at once when frustrated residents mobbed a June council meeting, the City's top code enforcement official said the whole thing actually began simmering long before that.
Tim McCormick, head code enforcement official of the Planning Department's Building and Safety Division, said complaints about high hedges had been piling up over years of lax enforcement, but it wasn't until the council's 2002 vote to make code enforcement the department's number one budget priority that there was enough money to hire new enforcers to respond to the complaints.
"People do periodically complain about their lives being affected from loss of air or loss of sunshine, and they come to the City for help," McCormick said. "In the previous two to three years we had a number of complaints without sufficient staff to enforce them."
In the past few years there may have been a couple letters sent to violators of the 42-inch front yard and eight-foot side and back yard hedge height limits, McCormick said. But it wasn't until the summer of 2003 that the City had the staff and the will to cite violators "to the point where we're willing to criminally prosecute them," he said.
The first of the letters that caused the backlash that led to a political
movement hit mailboxes in July 2003. From that summer until the spring
of 2004, over 100 residents received letters telling them they could face
fines of up to $25,000 a day if they did not cut their hedges. Some say
Bobby Shriver, nephew of John F. Kennedy, got his first letter the Tuesday before Thanksgiving 2003. It told him daily fines would kick in if he didn't cut his hedges by Monday.
"One of the things that has always been interesting to me is, who thought you would be able to find a tree trimmer who would work over Thanksgiving weekend?" Shriver said in an interview this week.
Every hedge violator in Shriver's neighborhood received letters that Tuesday.
The City cannot legally enforce its code solely on a complaint basis because residents could say they were being unfairly singled out, so it has adopted a system in which code enforcers cite every violation they can see from the house that received the complaint.
"A main principal with enforcement is that it has to be fair and even-handed," City Attorney Marsha Moutrie said. "When the issue is aesthetic it becomes harder for people to understand why you have to enforce the law for everyone, but it still has to be enforced fairly if it is going to be enforced at all, like any law."
Shriver said that after several phone calls he was able to get a City official to write a letter saying he did not have to trim his hedges by the Monday after Thanksgiving. In fact, when he checked in with the City in December, he said, staff told him not to worry about it until further notice.
That notice came in April, when Shriver received a second citation that he said made no reference to the first and threatened $25,000 dollar a day fines if hedges were not cut in 30 days.
Rumors flew through the city - and several hedge violators interviewed for this article said they still believed them -- that the letters contained a typo, with the decimal point in the threatened fine misplaced to read $25,000 instead of $25 or $250 or $2,500. McCormick said, though, that the letters were not misprinted.
A high hedge could theoretically pose a safety concern grievous enough to garner the maximum fine of $25,000 a day, he said.
"It could be a major safety issue or it could be a very minor issue," McCormick said. "If it blocks a driver from seeing a pedestrian, that could be a major issue. In a backyard, just a few feet over the limit, maybe no one will ever even see it."
Asked whether it was safe to assume that the hearing officers who levy fines would never realistically charge someone $25,000 a day for a too-high hedge, McCormick said, "We wouldn't know because the decision is not made by us, it's made by an independent hearing officer, but I'd say that's a valid assumption."
McCormick declined to pinpoint exactly who green-lighted the letter that threatened $25,000 fines.
"There were a lot of people involved in reviewing it, and I think the City takes responsibility overall," he said. "I don't want to get in the position of saying this person, this person."
He said the City had sent out a few hundred educational letters two or three years ago explaining the height regulations to residents, but since the educational program had had little effect, a different strategy was used in the most recent push for enforcement.
The more heavy-handed approach proved no more effective, however.
McCormick said that of the 102 residents who received notices of hedge violations, only a fraction have actually cut their hedges and fewer than four have paid any money to the city. Those that did paid $250 each.
Enforcement of the height limits has been on hold since spring, when Council Members Bob Holbrook and Herb Katz placed discussion of the ordinance on the council's agenda after receiving complaints from residents.
Nearly 30 residents spoke against the law at the June public hearing, and about a third that many in favor of it, and the council voted to halt enforcement until staff could prepare a study of the ordinance.
Halting enforcement was not enough to quell the movement that was brewing, however.
Scores of hedge violators, who say they were mistreated by some council members at the hearing, began meeting during the summer.
"We exchanged emails (at the hearing) and we had a meeting," Shriver said. "We decided we would form up a group and fight this."
The group bore two council candidates -- Shriver and Leah Mendelsohn, who has since dropped out of the race to support Shriver -- and other, smaller grass-roots political groups that have become involved in the election.
One of those is the Santa Monica Residents Coalition, founded by hedge violator Aaron Mendelsohn, who says he was cited multiple times over the course of a few years, each citation ignoring the appeal he had filed for the previous one.
"My own goal is to bring the City away form the edges," Mendelsohn said, adding that he believed the Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights group that has dominated the council for most of the past quarter century was radical.
"I'm not against rent control," Mendelsohn said. "I'm a private property rights advocate. I'm a contributor to the local homeless shelters."
He hired a Beverly Hills firm to send out 10,000 emails asking Santa Monicans about their satisfaction with the City government. Just under a quarter responded, and Mendelsohn notes that of the respondents, 70 percent said the City was on the wrong track.
Other new –- and much more powerful –- groups, such as Santa Monicans for Change and Santa Monica Citizens for Sensible Priorities, have seized on the controversy and joined the opposition chorus with mailers blasting City Hall bureaucracy, and the SMRR majority in particular.
Funded by business interests, Santa Monicans for Change had raised $170,000 by mid-October, thanks to large donations from Hotel Casa del Mar and Shutters on the Beach Hotel, according to financial disclosure statements submitted to the City Clerk. (see related story)
Santa Monica Citizens for Sensible Priorities, which as a “nonpartisan organization” does not need to reveal its members or donations until after the elections, has sent out glossy mailers with horror stories about City Hall’s bureaucracy. (see related story)
And the homeowners behind the movement did let not let up, continuing to flood the council with emails about the City’s hedge laws.
The pressure seems to have worked. The council –- which had said in June that it would not revisit the hedge issue until January when staff finished its research -- held a follow-up discussion this month after three incumbents running to keep their seats another four years called for the council to consider drafting an ordinance to ease the height restrictions. (see related story)
"What I have found in talking to a lot of people on the issue," incumbent Michael Feinstein said before the meeting, "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," said Feinstein, who placed an item on the September 14 agenda that called for drafting an ordinance that eases restrictions on front-and side-yard hedges.
Incumbents Richard Bloom and Ken Genser also placed a similar item on the same agenda. (see related story)
The homeowners declared victory October 12 when the council changed course and unanimously voted to direct staff to study options that would trim back or abolish hedge heights. Several council members issued apologies to the hedge violators.
"If they (the hedge group) didn't organize, would this be happening?" Shriver said. "If I wasn't running, would this be happening?"
Although the violators celebrated the council's action as a victory, the confusion between them and staff wallows on.
McCormick said staff is currently only citing violators whose hedges are causing serious safety concerns. Mendelsohn, however, said he has been cited again since the council halted enforcement in June, with no indication in the letter that the citation is a response to a safety concern.
"We (my lawyer and I) sent them a letter with real reasoned, learned type arguments," Mendelsohn said.
The City sent a one-sentence response to his request for appeal, he said.
"We disagree with the contents of your letter," he said the response told him, "and please comply."PART III: The Council members react.
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