UPDATED: Hedge Restrictions Draw Sharp Criticism, Again

December 15, 2009

For the second time this year, a proposal to treat tall, thick hedges in front yards with the same restrictions as fences has drawn strong public criticism, and questions about the city’s motivation behind the new law.

“As far as I can tell there is no health and safety aspects behind this. It’s an attempt to regulate aesthetics,” said West U. resident Jeff Raizner, who has such a hedge in his yard.

Two residents of West University Place spoke out about different areas of the three-pronged proposal at a public hearing Monday at City Hall. They were joined in their criticism by some city council members, but other councilmen spoke in defense of the changes.

Jeff Raizner's house is in the 4100 block of Tennyson, but he owns this lot directly behind it which is enclosed in a fence-like hedge.

Jeff Raizner's house is in the 4100 block of Tennyson, but he owns this lot directly behind it which is enclosed in a fence-like hedge.

“This looks like a fence, it smells like a fence, it acts like a fence: It’s a fence,” said Mayor Bob Kelly.

The proposed ordinance, drafted by the Zoning and Planning Commission, would make changes to three areas of the city’s zoning code. One change would require doors or gates in fences made of masonry or stone for emergency personnel. Another change clears up the definition of “visibility triangles,” areas where the city restricts landscaping and other objects to protect drivers’ visibility. The controversial topic is the proposal to restrict hedges that act as fences, which caused a public uproar during another public hearing in March.

Raizner said his home’s front yard has had a fence-like hedge since before he purchased it in 2004. The hedge is important to his family’s enjoyment of the home, he said, and a landscaping firm quoted him $50,000 to remove it.

“I’m simply requesting a full and complete grandfathering condition that would allow this structure to remain in place,” Raizner said.

As it is written, the ordinance would apply to hedges within 10 feet of the front property line that form a physical barrier, like a fence, on lots that contain a house or other structure. Any fence-like hedges planted after Dec. 1, 2009 would have to be five feet or less to conform with the code. Hedges planted before Dec. 1 would be exempt.

InstantNewsWestU.com incorrectly reported details of the proposed fence-like hedge law. In actuality, the proposal would mostly regulate fence-like hedges on lots that do not have homes or other buildings. For example, the if a resident purchased a home and also purchased the lot directly behind it, then built a fence-like hedge on the empty lot, the ordinance would restrict that hedge. That empty lot serves as the resident’s back yard, but it is like a front yard to the neighbors on adjacent lots.

The restrictions would kick in if a hedge under those circumstances was running parallel to the street, had the characteristics of a fence or barrier, and covered more than 50 percent of the width of the lot.

“The definition of a fence-like hedge goes a long way towards making the plantings in most front yards exempt from this,” said Steve Brown, chairman of the Zoning and Planning Commission.

Hedges meeting the rigid definition would be restricted to five feet tall or less. If the hedge was planted before Dec. 1, 2009 the owner would get a five-year period to bring the hedge into compliance with the new ordinance.

Councilman George Boehme joined Raizner in his criticism of the restrictions.

“My question is why do we have a need for this? To me I think this is certainly not something that was asked for by citizen complaints,” said Boehme. “I just don’t think we should be involved in this level of activism.”

But Mayor Bob Kelly and Councilman Chuck Guffey said they had personally heard complaints about the hedges.

“Why do we ban fences? We ban them because it’s an obstruction to people who live in the neighboring house,” Guffey said. “Common sense would tell you you shouldn’t have a fence going all the way to the front, blocking your neighbor’s view.”

The majority of the council seemed to think the area of the three-pronged ordinance dealing with visibility triangles should get more attention. The change didn’t introduce new regulations, but simply cleaned up existing ordinances to smooth the definitions and put all references to visibility triangles in the same section of the code. Council members said the city should focus on enforcing the visibility triangle laws.

“In my view this is something we should be looking at as unsafe,” Boehme said. “I do find it kind of backwards we are passing some new laws dealing with visibility if we are not enforcing the laws we have in place.”

The Zoning and Planning Commission will consider all the comments at its next meeting on Jan. 14, and decide whether to drop the issue, make changes, or recommend the ordinance to the city council as it is. The commission invites residents to the Jan. 14 meeting to submit more feedback.

InstantNewsWestu Staff

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