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Thursday, January 17 , 2019, 1:15 am | Overcast 59º


Santa Barbara City Council to Size Up Contentious Hedge Limits

The city officials will consider suspending the 50-year-old law on heights until it can be updated.

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Some homes, such as this one in the downtown Santa Barbara area, have hedges that are higher than the 3½-feet legal limit. On Tuesday, the City Council will consider suspending the ordinance until it can be updated. (Rob Kuznia / Noozhawk photo)

Think you’re a law-abiding citizen? Grab a tape measure and take note of the height of your front-yard hedge.

If it’s higher than 3½ feet tall, chances are you’re breaking the law in the city of Santa Barbara.

And if you happen to rub your neighbor the wrong way, they may just decide to turn you in. Through the decades in Santa Barbara, countless neighbors have ratted out the proverbial Joneses for the height of their hedges, sometimes out of concern for safety, other times out of sheer spite.

On Tuesday, the City Council will discuss the idea of eliminating this option for neighborly revenge — at least temporarily — by suspending the ordinance until a more up-to-date rule can be drafted and passed.

Council members Helene Schneider and Dale Francisco requested that the item be placed on the agenda, saying the current ordinance might be outdated.

The ordinance actually applies not only to hedges, but also to fences, screens and walls. The height of those items is not to exceed 3½ feet near front-yard sidewalks or driveways, or 8 feet anywhere else on the property. The idea is to ensure safety by, among other things, clearing visibility for cars leaving driveways, and to prevent neighboring homes from getting boxed in and sun-deprived by a growing green wall.

Schneider said the ordinance needs an upgrade, noting that it dates back to 1957.

“I think the whole issue of trees and landscaping in Santa Barbara has changed in 50 years,” she said. “(The ordinance) is a very cookie-cutter approach. It doesn’t matter if you are on a hillside or flats, or how close your neighbors are.”

She did add, though, that the proposed suspension would not apply to overgrown hedges that pose a legitimate threat to safety.

Although the matter has been on the radar of some city officials for some time, the issue resurfaced recently with a neighborly dispute on the Riviera that grew into a bit of a hullabaloo.

It started a month or two ago, when a neighbor turned in another neighbor for violating the hedge code. When a city compliance officer later confirmed that the person’s hedge was indeed in need of a trim, she drove around the general area looking for others. She found at least 20 and turned them all in.

“All of a sudden a bunch of neighbors got letters in the mail, saying, ‘Hey, your hedge is out of compliance,’” said Jim Westby, one of the neighbors who received a letter.

Westby said he and others contacted city officials and asked if they would consider placing it on the agenda, “so the public at least has a shot to give input on this.” 

Not everyone on the council believes that the hedge ordinance needs to be tampered with. Mayor Marty Blum on Monday said she’s inclined to leave it as is.

To her, every overgrown hedge poses a safety threat. Tall hedges, she said, prevent police from seeing what’s going on in suspicious front yards, and block views for pedestrians and motorists.

“I don’t think that’s how Santa Barbara wants to look — huge hedges and gates,” she said. “When you go into a neighborhood and it’s all hedges and gates, I do get very nervous about what’s happening with the crime rates there.”

Blum added that she’s even turned a few people in for their overgrown hedges.

Veteran City Planner Betty Weiss said neighborhood squabbles over hedge heights have been a regular occurrence ever since she began working at the city 22 years ago.

“It’s an old standard when it comes to complaints,” she said. “It’s a daily issue for us — it’s a section of the municipal code that’s very active.”

Weiss said that unless overgrown hedges pose an immediate safety threat, they are generally not the top priority of the compliance office.

Although Weiss couldn’t estimate Monday how many complaints the city gets every year, she said the vast majority of violators promptly cut their hedges down to size. Others have sought exemption by trying to prove that their hedge predates the ordinance’s 1957 inception.

People, she said, have even brought in time-yellowed letters written by former inhabitants describing how they spent the day trimming the hedge, “and the date of the letter is in the 1940s,” she said.

When this happens, the city sends an arborist on the case for verification.

“We have people who have old hedges, and they feel strongly about their old hedges,” she said.

People who receive warnings at some point receive a follow-up notice known as an abatement request. After three or four weeks, if they haven’t resolved the matter, they can be fined $100. The fines, Weiss said, can be levied on a daily basis, although she said few people actually pay penalties.

Complaints cannot be made anonymously, but the subject of the complaint can’t learn who turned them in until the case is closed.

Meanwhile, in the interest of full disclosure, Schneider admitted that her own hedges are 5 to 6 feet tall.

“If they were 3½ feet, I’d have absolutely no privacy, because I’m on a corner,” she said. “Is that OK, or should corner lots be treated differently?”

Noozhawk staff writer Rob Kuznia can be reached at [email protected]

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