Over the past two years, Los Altos resident Guido Van Thillo has been able to see less and less. It’s not because his eyesight is failing – it’s because the neighbor’s hedge in front of his house has now comfortably cleared two stories, and is still growing, Van Thillo said.
Van Thillo’s house on Eleanor Avenue, designed and built by Gustav Stickley in 1909 in the American Craftsman style, formerly belonged to an apricot orchardist. The Los Altos Historical Commission has deemed the house a historical landmark.
The Van Thillos have lived in the house since 1994. Van Thillo, a designer and contractor himself, built another house on the land he purchased in the same Craftsman style, diagonally in front of his own, and sold it.
According to Van Thillo, his neighbors, the Hetzlers, asked permission two years ago to grow the hedge along the fence, on the corners of their property facing his house.
“I said OK, because the area in front of the house would still be clear,” Van Thillo said. “But then they just kept growing and growing.”
When Van Thillo built the second house, he said he abided by the conditions approved by the Los Altos City Council, one of which specified that the “landscaping shall be of species that are low-growing and will not interfere with views of Parcel 2’s house from Eleanor Avenue,” with Parcel 2 referring to Van Thillo’s property.
Van Thillo noted that his porch now faces an approximately 10-foot-high wall of bushes and trees, including a redwood tree struggling for light under a palm tree.
Van Thillo said he attempted to stop the hedge growth once by approaching the Hetzlers, and a second time by calling firefighters and claiming the hedge was a fire hazard. He was rebuffed both times, as the hedge is on private property.
Since his attempts, the Hetzlers have hired an attorney, according to Van Thillo. The Hetzlers were unavailable for comment.
Van Thillo said he turned to the Historical Commission, which agreed to review the situation.
“The city is currently working on seeing whether we can preserve the view across the property without an easement,” said Zachary Dahl, senior city planner for Los Altos. “The question is whether (the condition that low landscaping be planted) is just a condition for a building permit or a condition that runs with the property.”
Regardless of the final outcome, “it’s just a condition specific to this circumstance,” Dahl added.
According to Dahl, the commission doesn’t have an ordinance that requires the city to limit the height of landscaping for other historical buildings – the Van Thillo property was a special case where a clear view of the street was outlined in the building plan.
However, one commissioner said the historical nature of Van Thillo’s property has played a role in the commission’s decision to become involved.
“The bottom line is, it’s a historic building,” said Janis Baer, vice chairwoman of the Historical Commission. “The point isn’t just preservation, it’s also so that people who are in the community can see our historic structures. That’s why the rule is in place.”