Filing claims about hedge heights could be cheaper

It may soon be cheaper to file a claim that a neighbor's hedge blocks the sun or is unsafe.

The City Council on Tuesday gave preliminary approval to amend the city code to reduce the cost of filing a complaint, along with notifying neighbors of a hearing, eliminating appeals to the Design Review Board and refunding 50% of the filing fee if the claim is determined to be valid.

Some residents felt the changes didn't go far enough.

"Make the person violating the code pay for a variance and pay the fee," said former Design Review Board member John Keith.

The city picks up the tab for the rest of the fees for a validated claim while the owners probably cannot legally be billed because they are not voluntarily involved in the process, City Atty. Philip Kohn said.

Besides, hedges — even overgrown hedges — are not a code violation if no one objects to them, Community Development Director John Montgomery said.

"We tightened up the ordinance so inspections and fines occur in a timely manner," Planning Commissioner Anne Johnson said. "But it is still a complaint-driven ordinance. So if people in a neighborhood enjoy a hedge, the city would not step in."

Height limits are not specified.

Once a claim is validated, fines can be assessed for every day over the specified time limit to correct the violations, unless exceptional circumstances prevent the remediation, such as a delay to accommodate nesting birds, which was not spelled out in the draft.

Under the proposed ordinance, hedge owners will be required to remedy validated claims related to safety within 30 days. Remediation of claims related to sunlight and views can take up to 90 days.

The city may also complete remediation and assess the hedge owner for the costs.

"A hedge claim is just the tip of a very large iceberg," attorney Gene Gratz said.

The larger issue is view preservation.

"It can't be avoided much longer," Gratz said.

The proposed amendment includes the declaration that sun and views are benefits as well as the vegetation that forms hedges.

Not enough, Councilman Kelly Boyd said.

"People have totally lost their views," Boyd said, showing a photograph of a property where the view has been obscured by vegetation. "View preservation is something we need to look at."

"Hedge Height Limitations" will be added as a new chapter to the city code, which also will outline the claim and enforcement processes and an amended definition of a hedge: "Hedge means generally dense vegetation so aligned as to form a physical barrier or fence."

"Basically the commission equated a hedge with a fence," Commissioner Norm Grossman said.

The revisions were recommended by a 4-0 vote of the Planning Commission, Commissioner Linda Dietrich absent.

If approved at the second reading, the ordinance would go into effect 30 days later.

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