20-Foot Hedge Sprouts 5-Year Battle in Small Desert City

An Indian Wells couple has filed a federal lawsuit requesting $10 million over a city order to chop their hedge.

A couple in a legal battle with a desert city in Southern California will have a chance next week to settle a five-year dispute over the height of their hedge.

Douglas Lawellin and Steven Rohlin allege in a federal lawsuit that the city of Indian Wells is unfairly singling them out over a city ordinance that limits hedge heights to 9 feet. They're seeking $10 million in damages and are set for a mediation conference next Wednesday.

They say their hedge has been as tall as 24 feet over the last five years, and they have repeatedly fought orders to trim it.

"This is a mature, 15-year-old hedge," said Lawellin. "If you do that to a mature tree, especially in the desert, you're going to kill those trees."

Indian Wells Mayor Dana Reed said he couldn't comment on pending litigation, but hopes for a resolution soon.

The row over the hedge height began in 2011, when a neighbor complained that Lawellin's and Rohlin's ficus trees blocked her view of the mountains.

After the City Council passed an ordinance restricting hedges on setbacks to 9 feet later that year, the neighbor complained again and city officials ordered the couple to comply with the law.

"The city was confronted with the following choice: either enforce its ordinances, or walk away from them," said Brian Harnik, the neighbor's attorney. "They made the right choice, to enforce the law."

Lawellin and Rohlin, who said they chose their house partly because of its tall hedge, ignored the city's demands.

In 2012, the city sued them. A superior court judge ordered the hedge be cut down and awarded the city nearly $100,000 in attorneys fees, according to court documents.

Lawellin and Rohlin filed their lawsuit in 2013 and said they are refusing to pay the attorneys' fees until an outcome is reached in their federal case.

"It's only being enforced against certain owners," said Ernest Franceschi, the couple's lawyer. "That violates equal protection."

City officials defended the ordinance in court documents, saying they're not acting arbitrarily. They enforce the code when a neighbor complains.

"Doing so comports with both common sense and the Constitution," said a motion filed for the city.

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