City files criminal complaint over hedge heights

A Laguna Beach woman will be arraigned on criminal charges if she doesn't trim part of the hedge in her backyard.

The City Council on Tuesday denied a request to modify the height limit on one portion of a hedge along the back perimeter of 1772 Ocean Way, which property owner Maria Jones claimed was at the 9-foot-7 height approved by the council in 2011.

The city claimed Jones violated the city code by not complying with notices to reduce part of the hedge to 6 feet, 7 inches — a misdemeanor that's led to criminal charges.

"In my experience, it is unprecedented for criminal charges to be filed over the height of a hedge," Jones' attorney Dan Lawton said Wednesday.

Jones was advised by the city attorney to either seek a clarification of the City Council interpretation or ask for the modification for a 9-foot limit across the entire rear property line, in light of the pending criminal complaint.

"This is not something the city does lightly," said City Attorney Philip Kohn. "Her attorney has indicated that she is not willing to cut the hedge and that is not what the council approved.

"We will communicate with her attorney and if she trims the hedge, we will ask for dismissal of the complaint."

Lawton was not available to attend Tuesday's hearing and Jones requested a continuance, but the council denied the request. Lawton has no doubt about Jones' next steps.

"She will defend the charges, successfully defend the charges and then have a case against the city for malicious prosecution — it might be correct to call it persecution," said Lawton.

The council overturned a Design Review Board approval of a 12-foot-high privacy fence along the back of the Jones property in April 2010 and approved a 6-foot-high fence and hedges.

According to Jones, no height limit was set by the council, which she said she confirmed repeatedly with city officials.

She bought 12 expensive, 9- or 10-feet-tall ficus trees and had them installed to provide the privacy she wanted for herself and her two daughters from the view of occupants of buildings that overlooked her property, and to resolve an ongoing dispute with neighbors.

About a year later, a neighbor filed a hedge-height claim against Jones, alleging loss of view and sunlight on his rental property.

The city's landscape architect visited the Jones property and in June rendered the decision at an administrative hearing that the trees, which had grown to 14 feet, did not conform to hedge-height limits in the city code and portions had to be trimmed.

"Why would I pay thousands and thousands of dollars to buy and install the trees if I could only have a 6-foot hedge?" Jones said Wednesday. "It is all on the video of the meeting."

Jones appealed the decision to the council, which upheld the administrative approval at its Aug. 16 meeting.

She was notified by Community Development Director John Montgomery on Aug. 18 that the trees must be trimmed.

"I started receiving notices after that," Jones said.

While negotiations were underway between the city attorney's office and Lawton, she was notified that a criminal complaint had been filed and she must appear in court. However, when she arrived at Harbor Justice Center in Newport Beach, she was told that no complaint had been filed yet, Lawton said.

Her new arraignment is scheduled for April 11.

"This has all been a nightmare," Jones said.

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