Longboat hedge laws must be trimmed with precision
Editor & Publisher
I expect to see Ronald Reagan show up at Marina Bay, stare south at the hedge looming 35 feet in the air and shout at the Harbour Court neighbors: “Tear down that hedge, tear down that hedge.”
And the gap in willingness and inability for the residents to the south at Harbour Court and Marina Bay to reach an amicable hedge height between their properties is causing a reexamination of codes and ultimately priorities in Town Hall. That could prove problematic for others.
Privacy vs. views
If I paid $1.28 million for a third floor unit of a condominium and at the time the view stretched across my neighbor’s property to take in the Sarasota skyline, what should be the rule if that residential neighbor later robs me of that view day by day inch by inch?
And that is what has happened at Marina Bay where Harbour Court’s hedge has grown to more than 30 feet and keeps growing.
And for the Marina Bay residents it should never have come to his. They have asked the board at Harbour Court to come up with a policy that would leave the hedge as high as 15 feet — enough to block any chance the Harbour Court folks see Marina Bay and yet low enough the Marina Bay owners, who all live at an elevation above a parking garage, to keep their water views.
There was no agreement and in fact, the Marina Bay folks were told unceremoniously, “The hedge ain’t coming down.”
And that sentiment was spoken with the surety of someone who has the laws on their side.
But that sword may be turning on Harbour Court as the Commission is now one reading away from mandating that a hedge between condo and single family zones be no more than six feet high up to 50 feet from the water between the properties. In essence, the Commission is seeking an objective standard reasonable to both sides. It may be expanding the ordinance to address any water-view blocking hedges.
Hedges make fences seem downright simple. Unlike a fence, hedges do not always make good neighbors. And part of that is there is nothing very quantifiable or objective in the codes. Fences do not grow and double in height after a purchase. They certainly do not grow five-fold.
That being said, the privacy of single-family residents and the right to have a wall of green must also be respected.
And if residents wish to bake like autumn leaves in the sun in their own backyards, their right not to have neighbors in condos peering onto their lathered ambitions must be respected as well.
And condo owners should not have the right to intrude into the living rooms of homeowners. That being said, Longboat Key is about waterfront property, waterfront views and maintaining the value of our most precious assets.
Now let’s stay with that important point and remove ourselves from the hedge war at Marina Bay. Currently, a hedge between a condo and single-family zones on the water can be of unlimited height. The proposed ordinance says six feet should be the height for a setback of 50 feet. But there is a problem in six feet — it has no basis in anything and is arbitrary. It is as if we said hedges could only be the average height of an average commissioner.
And at the meeting, Town staff said less than 25 sites on the Key have a condo bordering residential. Staff said it looked at no other sites to see what the existing hedge heights are and what the impact of adopting a new rule would be. That is a fundamental mistake on Longboat Key and it was surprising to see the Commission not request such a study and vote without that information.
Ironically, staff in 2009 visited nearly 1,000 hedges on the Key to come to the conclusion that Longboaters love lush and tall hedges and the Town does not enforce its own restrictions. We then abandoned regulating hedges in side yards between properties.
That is why the conflict at Marina Bay is impossible to regulate without a new law. But if we can visit 1,000 hedges to decide to get rid of a regulation, we should visit more than one site to determine we need to re-regulate. In other words, in those other 20-plus properties, do hedges occlude a water view? Are their privacy issues? Are there no other issues? We do not have those answers and yet we are resolving a problem.
And let’s extrapolate the adopted value. If we adopt a regulation preserving views for a condo across another property, are we going to look at forbidding single-family neighbors from impeding water views? Where does it end?
The neighbors of Marina Bay already have intimated that trees planted along the property line would be exempt from code and be a worse view blocker. They intimate that may be their answer to a new restriction.
Not to sound like an eastern mystic, but the answer in this case will lie in the middle — that balance between views and privacy. In fact, the answer in true planning would be our planning staff using a simple calculation of visible planes from first floor elevations of condos and how those view planes clear or intrude on neighboring homes and lives.
In essence, there is a hedge height that will allow an elevated condo to look out over a home to the skyline while not peering down into the neighbor’s privacy. And that height will certainly be at least 10 to 12 feet since that is where first floors begin.
Arriving at a demonstrable objective standard is paramount so we get away from the “six feet sound about right to me…” approach from the dais.
So there you have it — staff ought track down all incidents and possible conflicts using the zoning map. Staff should make a policy recommendation based on something calculable and objective — likely about 10 to 15 feet. And we ought stick with it and enforce the measure. It should be the maximum height allowed while still affording the neighbor’s water view.
Then the Commission could adopt something that gives the minimal reasonable view relief while allowing the maximum hedge right for the existing neighbors. Usually by being arbitrary we have done something determinably foolish which will have other consequences.