Wellington Council Cuts Phase-In For New Fence, Hedge Rules

The Wellington Village Council.

By Joshua Manning

The Wellington Village Council gave initial approval Tuesday, Oct. 12 to a new set of rules governing the appearance of fences, walls and hedges in the community. However, while approving the zoning text amendment, the council decided that the proposed seven-year phase-in schedule was too long, cutting it back to five years.

The council heard a presentation from Assistant Planning, Zoning & Building Director Michael O’Dell about the changes, aimed at creating a uniform appearance among the 1,247 privately held fences, walls and hedges along Wellington thoroughfares.

Wellington has long had strict rules for property maintenance, but privately held fences and hedges facing roadways have been a reoccurring issue. The latest effort aims to tweak the code to improve appearance in uniformity, setback, hedge size and fence appearance.

O’Dell stressed that the problem is with a relatively small number of properties, and that code cases usually decline when reminders are sent out. The village deals with, on average, 90 active code cases a year regarding fences and hedges.

Among the changes are the addition of more approved hedging materials, with a goal of phasing out difficult-to-maintain ficus hedges. In addition to the currently approved cocoplum, green arboricola and podocarpus plants, the new rules add clusia and Simpson’s stopper to the list of hedge materials.

Rather than 6 to 10 feet, hedges will need to be a uniform 8 feet. They will also need to be irrigated.

The rules also add white-colored vinyl fences to the list of approved fencing, and also clarify rules on fence colors and chain link privacy screens.

However, residents whose properties do not use the newly specified materials have some time before the new rules will be enforced. The proposed zoning text amendments gave residents seven years before nonconforming hedges and fences must be replaced by one of the approved materials.

“We strongly believe that through PSAs, code enforcement and other public education outreach, we can obtain this goal of creating a uniform look throughout the village,” O’Dell said.

However, council members questioned the long timeframe, asking O’Dell if it can be reduced. He said that it could be reduced to five years rather than seven years, but he wouldn’t go less than that.

“It’s not as easy as just running down to your local nursery and buying plant material,” he said, adding that some people will have financial issues getting it done and most people will end up hiring someone to do it.

When the council suggested a grant program to help residents, O’Dell had another approach. Once residents remove old hedge material and add working irrigation, he said that perhaps the village can provide the plant material and install it.

“As opposed to providing grant dollars, we can use our expertise to make sure that the right plant material is put in in the right location,” O’Dell said.

All four council members in attendance expressed concerns with the seven-year phase-in, which was included in the new rules when they were approved by the Architectural Review Board on Aug. 18 and the Planning, Zoning & Adjustment Board on Sept. 8.

“I don’t like the 2028 timeframe,” Councilman Michael Drahos said. “I think that is too far out.”

After some discussion, the council agreed to change that to five years.

Vice Mayor John McGovern asked for more information on how the new rules will be communicated to residents.

“The first step is for us to pass this, and then we must figure out how to interact with residents to help make this happen,” he said. “I would like to learn more about what the outreach to residents will be.”

Once they were changed to reflect a five-year phase-in, the council approved the first reading of the zoning text amendments 4-0 with Mayor Anne Gerwig absent. The second and final reading is scheduled for Tuesday, Oct. 26.

In another code enforcement-related matter at the Oct. 12 meeting, the council refused a request for a fine reduction by the owner of four rental properties on Goldenrod Road behind the Wellington Marketplace shopping plaza.

Property owner Scott Epstein made a settlement offer of $3,500 to settle code enforcement liens totaling $144,726 stemming from years of property maintenance issues. Village staff had made a settlement offer of $29,129 — an 80 percent reduction of the fine, which is the most that village staff can offer without council approval. Epstein countered with $3,500.

While the long list of code items was eventually brought into compliance, it took some time. One code case went on more than three years and reflects the bulk of the money owed.

“We do not allow property owners to allow their properties to fall into disrepair and become an eyesore,” Planning, Zoning & Building Director Tim Stillings said. “The point of code enforcement is to get compliance. This was a $50 per day fine that has risen to $144,000 because the things were not corrected in a timely fashion. We have not been given substantial reason as to why these violations dragged on for so long.”

When pressed by the council for a history of the property, Stillings said that the current owner has been involved in 56 code cases on the properties since 2004.

Vice Mayor John McGovern noted that the properties are now for sale, which he said is why the owner is suddenly interested in resolving the liens.

“I see there is an offer on this property,” McGovern said. “The owner says that time is of the essence to resolve this because of the sale, but clearly time was not of the essence when it came to resolving the original code enforcement issues.”

Epstein, a Wellington resident, said that there was miscommunication with the village, which is why it took so long to get things resolved. “These violations, when I was notified about them, I did do my best to get them fixed,” he said. “One of them, I had the problem with a tenant. One was for a hedge, and that was when there was miscommunication.”

Councilman Michael Drahos said that under the circumstances, he would not approve anything less than the 80 percent reduction already offered.

“The law is the law, and the rules are the rules,” Drahos said. “I did not see any effort from this property owner to square this away until he had an opportunity to sell this property. I think the offer to reduce this down to $29,000 is extremely generous given the fact that this is a repeat violator.”

The council denied request for a further fine reduction 4-0.