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Will Laguna Hedge Height Law Save Views or Spark Squabbles?

For $200, city crews now will check a neighbor's shrubs and order a trim if they exceed limits.

January 02, 2003|Stanley Allison | Times Staff Writer

Residents in Laguna Beach -- a city of breathtaking ocean and canyon views -- now have the right to protect what they see, or in some cases, what they once saw.

For $200, residents can have city crews measure a neighbor's hedge to determine if it exceeds a height limit recently established by the city. If it's taller than 4 feet, it'll be ordered trimmed. If the offender lives on a corner lot, 3 feet's the limit.

The rule, which takes effect this month, is designed to protect the panoramas that lured many to town and is likely to be felt throughout the city because nearly every residential street above Coast Highway is on a hill.

And hedges, whether planted for aesthetic or privacy reasons, are ubiquitous.

The ordinance limits hedges to 4 feet in the frontyard. Rear and side yards can have hedges up to 6 feet. In some cases, hedges may be taller, but only if they don't block a neighbor's view or sunlight. Hedges must also be trimmed if they present a safety hazard to motorists.

But opponents of the law -- Ordinance No. 1418 -- say it is an unnecessary intrusion by city government that will create more problems than it solves.

Debbie Hertz, a 25-year resident, said the rule is one more example of the city becoming "unlivable." She predicts the ordinance will invite disputes between neighbors when one is forced to trim a hedge after another complains to the city.

Real estate isn't worth much "if your life is so miserable that you don't want to be there," she said. "We used to have a panoramic, 180-degree view of the ocean. We now have a very restricted view from all of the houses that have been built into our view."

But hedges, she says, are a minor issue compared with the larger problems that face the city, such as noise and overdevelopment.

Something had to be done, said Carolyn Martin, a senior planner for the city. Some residents have hedges 20 feet or taller, blocking views their neighbors paid for and obscuring the sunlight that once streamed into their homes.

The ordinance is the latest attempt by the city to solve the problem of allowing residents the freedom to landscape their property while allowing their neighbors to enjoy what they paid for -- an unobstructed ocean view.

Ganka Brown, for instance, recalled giving the real estate agent a check for her home as soon as she stepped onto the rear deck.

"I was buying the view," she said. She could see up the coast to Newport Beach, and at night she could see the faint lights from the Palos Verdes Peninsula.

But eucalyptus trees planted by her neighbors have taken that away. Brown said all she can see are bits and pieces of Coast Highway "and the twinkling of lights between the tree leaves."

But the new ordinance will not help her because her problem is trees, not hedges.

Martin said the city soon will begin the process of adopting an preservation ordinance that will address all things that affect views, including trees.

"They've been saying that for eight years," said Brown, laughing.

The city used to have a voluntary view preservation rule that encouraged property owners to work together to resolve disagreements such as overgrown hedges and lost sunlight. But it was deemed ineffective. A committee would make recommendations after hearing both sides, but on the rare occasion action was taken, it was usually unsatisfactory to one side or the other.

With the height standards, there is less wiggle room for disagreement, city officials said. And residents can still enlist the city's help if they believe a neighbor's hedge is too tall.

Proving that there are always two ways to view something, Hertz says the ordinance does not take into account why residents often grow tall hedges.

"Why should my hedge be lower ... and my privacy compromised so someone could have a view?"

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