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The State

A High Hedge Brings Brush With the Law

Regulation: City arrests homeowner, saying she let curbside shrub grow too tall, creating hazard.

April 21, 2002|KAREN ALEXANDER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

PALO ALTO — Kay Leibrand has the kind of California courtyard you might see in a magazine: towering redwood trees, a blooming dogwood, fragrant herbs and, beyond those, a dense green hedge between the sidewalk and street that shields her property from traffic noise and unsightly cars.

Now that hedge could land her in jail. Leibrand, a 61-year-old software engineer, faces a criminal misdemeanor charge for letting the hedge, a xylosma shrub, grow too high. She was arrested late last month at the home she shares with her husband, Roger, and is scheduled for arraignment May 30. She was not taken into custody.

She is accused of violating a city public nuisance law that prohibits shrubbery more than 2 feet tall on the strip of land between the sidewalk and the street. Her hedge, on a corner lot in the Midtown neighborhood, is about 6 feet tall.

She is the first to face criminal charges under the law, but her arrest comes as the city has vowed to promote visibility and safety requirements to protect pedestrians, bicyclists and motorists. Leibrand could face up to six months in jail and a maximum fine of $1,000.

"I sit here to read and look at my garden, and I'd rather not see the cars whizzing by," said Leibrand, who is fighting breast cancer and undergoes weekly chemotherapy treatments. She and her husband planted the shrub about 30 years ago, and she said it has been this tall for a quarter of a century. There have not been any accidents at her corner, she said.

The city says she had plenty of notice before the police showed up at her door to place her under arrest. She acknowledges receiving some warning letters from the city last year, but said she believed she was negotiating for a compromise.

Leibrand said she feels she was singled out because city leaders face political pressures to make the streets safer. She believes the view for drivers and pedestrians is unobstructed by the foliage, which she said is on land owned by the city.

"I thought I was complying, or at least negotiating, up until the very end. I was actually waiting for answers from the special legal counsel office to see what my options were before I took any action."

The Leibrands' street leads to an elementary school, and the road becomes busy before and after school as parents rush to drop off or pick up children.

Leibrand maintains a Web site chronicling her recent correspondence with the city and said she has received numerous e-mails of support from others in Palo Alto, as well as a couple of complaints.

She believes that the city started focusing attention on her property after a neighbor complained, but she said the neighbor did not discuss the issue with her until after the police were involved.

Lance Bayer, special counsel to the city attorney's office, declined to discuss the specifics of the case while it is pending. The ordinance, he said, has been part of Palo Alto's municipal code for years.

"New provisions were added regarding sight visibility because of community concerns regarding safety," Bayer said. "The city attorney's office has established within the city the visibility project as a way of communicating the importance of visibility safety in the community."

Leibrand said that she too is concerned about safety and has always kept the hedge trimmed low near the corner so motorists and pedestrians could see over it.

"This kind of thing just detracts from the real safety problems," she said, noting while she speaks that yet another motorist has run the stop sign at her corner.

Of course, it would have been easier to just cut the hedge when she was asked. And Leibrand admitted that will be the likely outcome, criminal charges or not.

"I'm sure I'm going to have to pay a fine, and I'll probably have to cut it down," she said. "But since it's been criminalized anyways, I'm afraid to do anything until I've met with a lawyer," something she did Thursday after reporting to police headquarters to be fingerprinted and have her mug shot taken.

"I've always thought this was going to end sooner, because it's so silly," Leibrand said, "but things haven't been making sense."

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