It was a spirited public hearing at the West University Place City Council meeting on April 22.
The official purpose was to listen to public comments on a proposed new ordinance that would have prohibited what people could grow in their front yards – “Fence-like hedge.” Only one resident spoke in favor of the proposal, dozens against. While the city council did not actually do anything on Monday night, the action by the zoning and planning commission at a subsequent meeting effectively kills the proposal.
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.”
So the concern at the public hearing was that the definition of “Fence-like hedge” included plants that were not a hedge or serving the functions of a perimeter fence. Because, the definition would 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.
First, the council had to decide the policy question – Is this an appropriate function of government? But the more complicated part of the equation was how to do it because the current definition of a “Fence-like hedge” is subject to a broad range of interpretations.
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.
But 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 would have applied to more than 500 West U front-yards if it had been adopted.