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Council Sets Sights on View Ordinance

Following impassioned testimony from 32 citizens about preserving views, the City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to investigate strengthening its ordinance and coming up with a solution by year end.

Proponent Mayor Kelly Boyd hoped to shortly put a committee in place comprised of members of the planning commission and design review board and six citizens. Council member Steve Dicterow asked for a preliminary assessment in 90 days.

In other business, the Council agreed to apply pressure on federal aviation authorities by presenting them with anecdotal examples of increased airplane traffic and noise over Laguna Beach and enlisting the aid of Rep. Dana Rohrabacher and other representatives. Though FAA officials deny any spike in traffic, the volume of complaints from residents raised concerns among council members.

Separately, the council put off making a decision about an appeal by local resident Gary Hollon, who challenged the approval of a new rooftop deck at Mozambique restaurant. The council asked Mozambique’s owner to stake the proposed umbrellas, heaters and elevator shaft on the rooftop to allow neighbors to assess the project’s impact until the next council meeting when they will revisit the appeal.

View seekers, though, dominated the evening. Over 50 people raised their hands in support of a revised view ordinance. A call for opponents yielded none.

Residents pled for an enforceable ordinance as the current rules, adopted in 2003, only provide for voluntary mediation with no guarantee of a resolution and require a $630 filing fee. They cited plummeting property values due to lost views, fire hazards caused by overgrown trees, and the need for a retroactive policy allowing for view restoration.

Though the staff cited only five view claims, resident Ganka Brown pointed out that most residents faced with intractable neighbors see no point in filing a costly, unenforceable claim.

Even with obliging neighbors, there are no guarantees, Aaron Spitz testified. After buying his tiny Thalia Street home 10 years ago, and then scraping and saving to build a new home on his lot, new neighbors moved in and replaced the previous owner’s well-trimmed ficus trees with view-inhibiting olive trees. Spitz asked them to trim the trees, and they agreed. “But I am at their mercy” for my view, he said. “It’s an uneasy feeling.”

“I have a view that is so spectacular, and I could lose it because people aren’t willing to work with me,” said Marsha Bianchi, who finds her Victoria Beach view threatened by trees in the yard of David Marder. Marder proved the hearing’s exception, arguing against trimming habitat for nesting birds.

Having lost his Lake Arrowhead home to a fire, Arch Beach Heights resident Steve Caporaso advocated for fire safety measures in addition to view preservation. Lizzie Mulder agreed, saying her Summit Drive neighbors had banded together over concern that a nearby grove of eucalyptus trees constitutes “a huge fire hazard.”

Local realtor and longtime resident Bob Hartman said loss of view could decrease a property’s value by “hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

Every room in resident Kathy Sassin’s house that afforded a view added five figures to its value, she told council members, recalling her 1974 purchase. Now that view is blocked and she feels she has no recourse.

Advocates for tree preservation were less vocal, though Laguna Nursery owner Ruben Flores cautioned against simply banning trees of a certain height. “I would love to help out to preserve views and have beautiful trees as well,” he said.

Likewise, Council member Toni Iseman said she felt compelled to “speak up for the trees” and encouraged a “thoughtful” approach, though she conceded the need for a more effective ordinance. “Hopefully, if we have an ordinance with teeth, we won’t need to use it often,” she said.

“I hope this time we can get the real thing,” added Mayor Pro Tem Elizabeth Pearson. She endorsed the suggestion that the impact of landscaping on both ocean and canyon views be added to the construction approval process. She also cautioned against a blanket set of rules, since “each case is unique,” and urged the simultaneous review of both the hedge and view ordinances.

Council member Bob Whalen emphasized the importance of assessing the cost and liability to the city of any new ordinance, particularly one that is retroactive, and of making sure it addresses fire safety concerns.

Dicterow noted a shift in the debate over a view ordinance from 20 years ago. “So many people are being affected by this, and it really is important that we move forward,” he said. He also insisted that any new ordinance be retroactive as well as enforceable, and said that neighbors should be encouraged to work together first as a matter of policy.

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