The Santa Barbara City Council beat the first small step of a major retreat from ordinances regulating hedge heights, replacing the one-size-fits-all approach on the books since 1957 with more flexible guidelines that better conform to the unique needs of different neighborhoods. The hedge ordinance went radioactive in 2008 when city planners found themselves inundated with so many complaints — “spite hedges” between feuding neighbors became part of the jargon — that City Hall declared a temporary moratorium on enforcement. With the onset of the recession, that moratorium extended more than four years. Now, city planners are hoping to devise a more workable ordinance, and this Tuesday the Ordinance Committee took the first bite of what promises to be a very big apple.
City traffic engineers concede the existing hedge height limits — three and a half feet for front yards — are generally excessive for establishing safe sight lines for cars coming out of driveways and that the appropriate height will vary from driveway to driveway. When Councilmember Randy Rowse wondered to what extent trees planted near intersections might pose a traffic hazard, traffic engineer Derek Bailey responded, “If we were Caltrans, there would be no trees near intersections,” adding, “We recognize there’s more to building a community than being able to see 600 feet down the street.”
Not everyone supported a wholesale abdication of standards. One speaker termed the proposal to increase the allowable side yard hedge height from eight feet to 12 “unconscionable,” adding that the enforcement stick wielded by City Hall was necessary for bringing uncooperative, scofflaw neighbors into line. A series of public hearings on the matter will begin this August and should be back to the council early next year.