It Is Time to Reform Landscape Ordinances – Part 3
Photo: Tim Wong’s bush has grown next to his neighbor’s driveway for over 20 years without causing any problem.
By Janette Rosenbaum
The first two parts of this series reviewed how Madison’s vegetation ordinances came to be, whether they are benefitting the public, and how enforcement of them might be reformed. This third part examines a specific case of enforcement.
Tim Wong is a member of the Schenks-Atwood-Starkweather-Yahara (SASY) neighborhood association, which conducted the violation survey described in Part 1 of this article. He is also one of the residents of that neighborhood who received complaints about his yard.
Wong quickly resolved the complaint, which regarded flowers in his terrace being too tall. Then, Building Inspection (BI) supervisor Kyle Bunnow came to his property to “make sure he understood the rules”. During that visit, Bunnow pointed to a bush in a vision triangle in Wong’s yard, which had existed in that location for over 20 years without issue, and declared, “That has to go.”
The case ended up in court, where Bunnow constructed the following story in his testimony: Suppose that a car is backing out of an adjacent driveway, while a child is approaching on the sidewalk. The motorist and pedestrian do not see each other, because of the bush, and tragedy results.
This hypothetical danger ignores the following facts: First, Wong does not own a motor vehicle and has a tree growing in his driveway. The neighbor’s driveway, which more closely abuts the bush, is occupied by a picnic table most of the year; the neighbors only park vehicles in their driveway during winter, when the leafless bush is nearly transparent. Second, another of Wong’s neighbors testified that she has never seen any motor vehicle in Wong’s driveway. Third, as described in Part 2 of this article, almost no motor vehicle accidents anywhere have been attributed to the presence of a plant.
It is thus extremely doubtful that the destruction of Wong’s bush would result in any benefit to traffic safety – or to public health, safety, welfare, or morals more generally. Another feature of Wong’s case — to which we shall return in a moment — also illustrates the questionable legal grounds on which Madison’s vegetation ordinances are enforced.
The Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution states that all citizens must be treated equally under the law. Harvey Jacobs, an expert on property rights and professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, explains how this relates to a citizen’s use of their private property: Use of private property is controlled by local zoning laws, but because people own property in different zones, they do not all have the same rights as to how they can use their property. In the 1920’s, the Supreme Court ruled that this is not a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment, so long as everyone owning property in the same type of zone is subject to the same restrictions on the use of their property.
To return to our main topic, this should mean that Madison’s vegetation ordinances are acceptable under the Fourteenth Amendment, so long as everyone in the same neighborhood is held to the same standards. But to return to the case of Mr. Wong, this does not appear to be how enforcement is handled.
During that meeting with Supervisor Bunnow, Wong pointed to a bush on a neighboring property, which was clearly overhanging the sidewalk. Although this is a violation of the ordinances, Bunnow stated that he “had no problem” with it. It thus does not appear as though Wong and his neighbor were treated equally.
The Fourteenth Amendment sometimes allows for inequal treatment based on special circumstances; perhaps one of those exceptions applies here. Some examples of valid inequal treatment are as follows: One restaurant might be allowed to serve alcohol on their premises, while another restaurant in the same neighborhood is not, on the basis of only the first restaurant possessing a liquor license. Or, a residential property owner might receive special permission to violate setback ordinances due to their property having unusual topography.
The inequal treatment of Wong and his neighbor might be valid if, for example, the neighbor had a natural yard permit. This permit allows Madison residents to be subject to a somewhat more lenient set of vegetation ordinances. However, since the permit exception was created several decades ago, the city has issued perhaps 100 such permits. This is hardly enough to cover all the violations in the SASY neighborhood, let alone the many yards all across the city that are only in compliance with the ordinances if they have a permit. It is thus unlikely that Wong’s neighbor has a permit.
It is also possible that Wong’s neighbor had not received any complaint about their property. However, this does not seem like a reasonable criterion on which to discriminate between Wong and his neighbor. Neither bush had received a complaint (remember that Wong’s complaints were about another aspect of his property, which he addressed), and at any rate it is doubtful that any of the complaints in the neighborhood reflected a valid use of the police power to begin with.
Third, it could be the case that the discrimination reflected intelligent enforcement of the ordinances – that is, Wong’s bush was judged to be an actual hazard, while the neighbor’s bush was not. However, as described above, there is very little evidence that Wong’s bush was in any way endangering anyone.
In conclusion, the ordinances must be enforced through fair and reasonable criteria, so that true safety hazards are addressed while technical violations are left alone. The current enforcement practices do not support this goal. While the city may not have the resources to find and resolve all true safety hazards, shifting resources away from the senseless prosecution of technical violations would surely help to address the shortfall.