HIGHLAND — The ballot for November's election in Highland became a lot bigger at a recent City Council meeting when members unanimously rejected three citizens initiatives, which by law now go to a public vote in the November general election.

In addition to choosing a new mayor and two council members, Highland residents will now be voting on the initiatives, which would create a water board to manage the city's water system, change the way the city's open space is landscaped and maintained, and allow residents more latitude concerning fences on their property.

Much of the attention and debate has centered on the open space and fencing initiatives, which sponsors say would work together to improve the city's beautification efforts and make them more cost-effective.

At the heart of the issue is the type of curbing the city uses to separate city-owned open space from private property. Initiative sponsors say the city's 14-inch deep curbing made from a combination of road base and concrete is too expensive and can be eliminated if the fence initiative passes.

"We felt if people had reasonable fence options, the city wouldn't need to delineate (use curbing)," said Ed Dennis, one of the sponsors for the open space and fence initiatives.

The present ordinance limits the types of fences homeowners can build along property lines that border city-owned open space. Fences currently are limited to 4 feet high if they are solid, or up to 6 feet high if they are at least 55 percent open. The initiative would allow residents to add an additional foot of lattice or picket fence on top of the 4-foot fences and allow for solid fences of up to 6 feet high in some places.

City officials fear taller fences will create alleyways along trails and become a danger to public safety. Sponsors say the current requirement that taller fences be at least 55 percent open limits privacy and makes fences more expensive.

"The city has managed to create a fence ordinance that is not only undesirable but more expensive . . . ," Dennis said. "They've made minor changes, but they haven't really addressed the issues of security and privacy adequately."

Giving homeowners more reasonable options for fences, Dennis argues, would eliminate the city's need for curbing along property lines because residents would do it for the city by installing fences.

The initiative would replace the curbs with small, 6-inch markers placed at the corners of city property.

Councilman Glen Vawdrey says the city needs to clearly define its open space areas because residents have encroached on city land with dog runs, swing sets, and other backyard accessories, blurring the lines.

Such encroachments makes it difficult for city workers to properly maintain city property, he said.

"All we're wanting as a City Council is a way to maintain the land, a way to know what's ours, and a way for enforcement," Vawdrey said.

Initiative sponsors contend the city has done a poor job maintaining open space anyway, citing numerous areas around town that are overgrown with noxious weeds.

"Where appropriate, natural features are attractive," Dennis said, "but the weedy look has got to go. We're having a real problem with weeds overtaking our lawns."

Dennis said the weeds pose a serious fire hazard. In his neighborhood, in particular, a brush fire could burn through half of the homes very quickly.

By eliminating the curbing, sponsors hope the money saved can be used to lay sod in all of the weedy areas within developed neighborhoods.

"We feel (the open space initiative) is reasonable," Dennis said. "It's more cost-effective, and it will beautify the city. Personally, I think it's a win-win situation for everyone, and for the life of me, I can't understand why the city is fighting it."

City Manager Barry Edwards said eliminating curbing would not free up money for grass because no money has been allocated for curbing. The curbing ordinance applies only to future developments.

The city has allocated funds for a survey to determine city property boundaries and find existing markers.

"There is no active pursuit of any curbing delineation at the present," Edwards said. His biggest concern, he said, is the initiative appears to shift the financial burden from residents of open space subdivisions, who pay $20 a month for maintenance, to the city as a whole.

Vawdrey said the council rejected the initiative because as written, the city would be required to put grass on all the open space it owns, including undeveloped areas along hillsides that surround the city.

Dennis said the initiative is not meant to require grass on hillsides, but Vawdrey said council members must look at the initiative as it's written, not as it's intended.

Vawdrey believes an understanding with the sponsors is "absolutely possible."

"People have to understand that city has wanted all along to put grass in those (neighborhood) areas, it just doesn't have the money to do it all at once," he said.

Dennis said residents understands that but added the city needs to show it is willing to move in the right direction.

"There's a conflict with what (city officials) say they're willing to do and what they're actually willing to do," he said.

Vawdrey insisted that the council has not been ignoring the requests of residents.

"I just think it's sad," he said. "People are saying the City Council doesn't listen to them, but I think they're equating 'not listening' with not letting them do what they want. A lot of people live in those open space subdivisions, but we have a whole city to worry about."

Both sides will write a 500-word position piece for each initiative that will go out to all registered voters in the city prior to the Nov. 8 election.


E-mail: jtwitchell@desnews.com