Tonight the West University Place City Council will hold a Joint Public Hearing with the Zoning and Planning Commission to hear comments about new restrictions regarding balconies, increasing the maximum home height on flood-prone lots, and proposed new limits on plants in the front 20-feet of a home lot.
The City Council meeting will start at 6:30 pm. in the Municipal Building located at 3800 University Blvd. The Joint Public Hearing will probably begin at about 6:45 pm.
The first two items are mostly non-controversial are will likely pass unanimously. The third item, an ordinance further restricting fence-like hedges, is likely to be the item of controversy at the public hearing.
Proposed new limits on plants in the front yard
West U already prohibits front-yard fences (masonry, wood, metal) in the street-side 20-feet of the home lot if they exceed 36 inches. The intent of this proposed ordinance is to also prohibit fence-like hedges. The Code of Ordinances definition: “Fence-like hedge means an arrangement of vegetation or foliage having the characteristics of a fence and growing higher than 36 inches above the standard base level.”
The proposed ordinance would require existing properties to comply with the new law in three years or risk citation for a Class C Misdemeanor.
The controversy is two-fold, first about the appropriateness of the policy itself and then about the breadth of the definition of “Fence-like hedge.” Do we really want our local government to get in the business of telling property owners what to plant and how tall it can grow? And if we choose to dart down that path, how do you uniformly interpret the definition of “Fence-like hedge?”
There is not an accurate way to estimate how many homes would be affected by the adoption of this ordinance because of the lack of clarity in the definition. What does “having the characteristics of a fence” mean? If the definition were interpreted to apply only to hedges on the property-line that substantially surrounded the entire front yard, then the definition would likely apply to less than 50 homes.
The City Attorney’s interpretation of the definition of “Fence-like hedge”, although still not clear, appears to be much broader : “… the term “fence-like hedge” includes any plants or groupings of different types of plants, other than trees, including their branches/leaves that extend from ground level to over 36″ in height and are organized in such a manner that they touch or overlap to form a contiguous visual or physical barrier that prevents free passage.” This definition could apply to more than 500 West U front-yards.
The definition does not only apply to vegetation on or near the property line, the likely location of a fence, but a fence like-hedge is defined as any natural arrangement of plantings that grows together to a height above three feet anywhere in the 20-foot front yard setback. So two azalea bushes planted next to an oak tree could be interpreted as a “fence like-hedge.” And certainly, a row of hedges next to your neighbor’s driveway would be deemed illegal if this ordinance is adopted.
Increasing the maximum home height on flood-prone lots
The maximum height of a West U home is 35 feet. This amendment to the zoning ordinance would give up to a four-foot allowance for existing structures that have been subject to multiple flooding occurrences to elevate the structure to or above the minimum foundation elevation height. This proposed amendment to the zoning code would allow the home to be elevated to a maximum of 39 feet.
New restrictions about balconies
Zoning regulations generally prohibit structures in the front yard setback. In West U, a front porch that meets certain criteria can project into the front yard setback a maximum of 10 feet. The proposed amendment that would prohibit projections of a second-floor balcony with solid walls