Complaints Flow as Neighborhood Bushes Grow

The Hedge Wedge

Keep it down: Despite their common occurrence around town, hedges like this are illegal and supposed to be trimmed to a height of 3.5 feet. City councilmembers voted to suspend that ordinance while they looked into updating the code.
Paul Wellman

Take a drive through any Santa Barbara neighborhood and note the tall hedges marking property lines. Some were grown to increase privacy, while some are there for aesthetic purposes and to help residences fit into the look of their neighborhood.

But that doesn’t make them legal. In many cases-if not most-those hedges are in violation of city law. For city residences, a hedge within 10 feet of the property line can grow no higher than 3.5 feet tall. It’s been that way for half a century, and through the years neighbors have bickered back and forth with one another on the subject.

Enforcement of the ordinance is complaint-based, as the city doesn’t have money to keep up with keeping hedge height down. “The way the complaints are dealt with is so spotty around town,” Councilmember Grant House explained. Indeed, a quick look at any city neighborhood street turns up a large number of non-compliant residences.

But the subject came to a head recently when 20 to 30 residents on the Riviera received letters from the city informing them they were out of compliance with the code. “Our hedges have been there for years and years and years,” said resident Jim Westby, who received a letter about his forbidden foliage. The residents were facing fines of $100 per day if they didn’t trim down their vegetation. “That doesn’t sound like a good way to go about the issue,” Westby said.

The dozens of property owners were supposedly turned in by a property owner who wanted to remodel her house and who, during the design review process, was told she would have to shrink her shrubs. Her frustrated response: travel the neighborhood to find others out of compliance.

There’s a record of similar situations popping up around the city from time to time, and according to a city staff memo, the complaints have resulted in “significant discord among neighbors.” For proof of that, look no further than 317 E. Valerio St., the home of Mike and Suzanne Cohen. The Cohens, whose yard sits elevated from the sidewalk with a three-foot historic retaining wall in front, had planted more than 30 plants in their front yard, ranging from 4.5 to 6 feet tall. Eight months later, a neighbor called the city about the tall hedge, and the city subsequently ruled that the Cohens’ plants were out of compliance. To technically comply, the plants couldn’t reach a height taller than six inches because of the three-foot retaining wall. The city gave them no real option but to remove the plants, which they did over Memorial Day Weekend, totaling more than $3,000 in work and wasted greenery. And that’s not even mentioning the potential impact on the value of their property, which they claim is diminished. “Our front yard was beautiful and private,” Suzanne Cohen, a real estate agent, said in an email to the city. “Now it looks like a battle zone.”

The Cohens believe their situation was the result of prior disagreements with their neighbor and that the neighbor called the city “under the guise of safety” but nonetheless nefariously. “He did it as a vengeful act,” said Mike Cohen, who called the ordinance a “ridiculous law” that was a “vehicle for harassment.” (The neighbor did not return a phone call seeking comment.)

While it’s too late for the Cohens’ hedge, there is hope for the 20 to 30 people with pending complaints against them. At Tuesday’s meeting, the five City Councilmembers present (Roger Horton and Iya Falcone were absent) voted unanimously to prepare an ordinance that would suspend the hedge ordinance until they had a chance to examine it. In the meantime, the affected residents are off the hook as a new ordinance is developed.

While an overriding ordinance needed to temporarily halt the hedge ordinance will be ready within a month, Community Development Director Paul Casey suggested it would be nine to 12 months before his staff could work on a new ordinance, and a year to 18 months before something would be ready. “It’s going to be a complex issue to work through,” he told the council.

The temporary ordinance suspension would not affect enforcement when traffic or fire safety is impacted. Possible changes to the ordinance could call for hedge height issues to be reviewed on a case-by-case basis, or exceptions made based on hedges’ compatibility with particular neighborhoods. Mayor Marty Blum reminded councilmembers of the “goodness of the ordinance,” pointing out that police like to be able to see what’s going on at a house or in a yard that might be hidden by a large wall of green. “We have to have a balance,” she said.


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