Mary A. Castillo
In a surprise to planning commissioners and some residents, the
City Council Tuesday voted 4-0 to approve a second reading of an
ordinance limiting the height of hedges.
Councilman Paul Freeman was absent from the meeting.
At its Sept. 11 meeting, the commission voted unanimously to
recommend that the city not adopt a modified second reading of a
zoning ordinance amendment that limits the height of hedges to that
of fences. But the council decided not to follow the advice of the
The issue will come before the council in the future. Council
members can then hear from the public and make a final vote.
“Functionally, [hedges] very much have the same benefit and
potential circumstances of adverse conditions,” said Kyle Butterwick,
director of community development with the city. "[Staff] thinks they
should be treated the same.”
Proponents of the amendment argued that the process of this
amendment becoming law was “squabbling.” However, they agreed with
city staff to a point on what distinguishes a fence from a hedge.
“The difference between a fence and a hedge is that a hedge keeps
growing,” said Laguna Beach resident Ganka Brown. “It could grow to
20 feet and block views down the road.”
Hedges, Brown contended, were also likened to spite fences.
Resident Dave Connell took the podium to argue for view
“In a city where views are so important to the public, property
owners and the city tax base, it is even more important that we
recognize vegetation adjacent to property lines are indeed fences,”
He charged that some residents use vegetation to get around fence
The ordinance reviewed by the council stipulated that hedges will
be restricted to a height of 4 feet in the frontyard and up to 6 feet
in the side and rear yards. However, the amendment is rather
permissive in its language. If a hedge is taller than recommended,
but does not compromise a neighbor’s view or yard’s exposure to sun,
then it would be allowed to remain at its height. The city would
enforce the amendment only when residents bring a legitimate
complaint that demonstrates the property is adversely affected by an
overgrown or otherwise unruly hedge.
This method of enforcement concerned council members.
“I too feel concerned that we would be institutionalizing
selective enforcement,” Mayor Wayne Baglin said.
“A complaint would have to come from someone who is adversely
affected,” Councilman Steve Dicterow said. He proposed that
complaints be brought to administration at City Hall’s front counter.
If hedge owners wanted to appeal the administrative decision it would
go to Design Review, and if the parties appealed that decision the
matter would progress to the City Council.
“It would be very much like a short-term lodging administrative
usage permit,” Butterwick said. “Both parties sit down with me in
attempt to resolve the complaint.”
Not many from the public spoke at the meeting on the issue, likely
a result of the Planning Commission’s previous vote not to support
“As I always say, the Planning Commission proposes and the City
Council disposes,” Planning Commissioner Anne Johnson said. “The vote
came as a complete surprise to me.”
The Planning Commission based its decision on the vague language
defining a hedge and preserving a resident’s right to privacy. Based
on the extensive testimony brought before the commission, Johnson
said the amendment simply wasn’t right for Laguna.
“They equated unruly hedges to spite fences,” she said of the
council’s vote. “I don’t know how they’re going to enforce it.”
A modified amendment will go before the council at a future date.
After the vote, Baglin addressed the concerns brought up during
“I think this council has been on top of this,” he said. “We want
to come up with something equitable, manageable and legally
enforceable. Proving intent is not easy to do.”
* MARY A. CASTILLO is a news assistant for the Coastline Pilot.
She covers education, public safety and City Hall.