Q. I got a summons for bushes and I can’t believe it! I live on a corner, and there are tall hedges that have been there for years, even before I moved in. All of a sudden it’s a big deal. I even noticed that the summons is also for the hedges on my back property line, between my neighbor and me. Have you heard of this? Can I fight it? It doesn’t make sense.
A. What you’re referring to is that in some municipalities, shrubs or bushes taller than 4 feet or 6 feet, depending on the jurisdiction, that grow together in a hedge are called a “living fence.” The reason for the summons is both simple and complicated. Let’s start with complicated. What complicates things is that the ordinances have been around for a long time, and yet the specific hedge in your yard was not enforced before it was taken for granted. In my line of work, I see these conditions every day, and discussions about them leave people confused and angry, mainly — again, because there isn’t uniform enforcement. What complicates things even further is that from village to town to city in your county, there’s no uniform regulation, so a neighbor in another jurisdiction a few blocks away can have something that you’ll get a summons for. Does that make sense?
As for why you got the summons, well, that’s the simple part. The enforcement process is spotty because it’s often based on a written complaint in many jurisdictions. In smaller ones I’ve noticed that they’re better and more uniform about knocking on your door, even giving a warning. In larger jurisdictions it’s more difficult, because there are so many problems and so few people to do the enforcing. Frankly, if an inspector started at one end of Long Island and went door to door, I’m certain he or she could find a violation on nearly every property.
With houses it can be anything from hedges being too high to a missing or open handrail, non-uniform steps, windows too small to meet fire escape requirements, parking in a front yard overnight, sheds, decks, fences, pools … and on and on. Have you ever noticed how people drive differently? Some have quick reaction times, some are slow. Some like to speed and think stop signs are just a suggestion, while others are methodical, even using a rule of thumb like counting to three before proceeding. Imagine that your hedge obstructs the view of both kinds of drivers and how many near misses there have been. Now you know why there are rules for front yard and corner hedges.
As for rear yard hedges, I’m as stumped as you as to why there would be a problem. I recently presented a zoning variance case for tall hedges on a rear property line. The neighbors planted the hedges together. Neither understood why a variance was necessary. Until people speak out, change rarely happens on its own.
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