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Council Tackles Fire Safety, Trees and Business

Laguna Beach Fire Chief Jeff LaTendresse

Laguna Beach Fire Chief Jeff LaTendresse

After a presentation on Laguna Beach’s defensible space, where firefighters can safely make a stand against an oncoming fire, City Council member Bob Whalen on Tuesday pushed his colleagues to consider measures to broaden such boundaries.

As a result, the council agreed to consider the interior canyons identified by the fire department most in need of costly and labor-intensive fuel modification as well as directing the Planning Commission to work on a defensible space ordinance.

Fire Chief Jeff LaTendresse, invoking the upcoming 20th anniversary of Laguna Beach’s devastating 1993 wildfire, stressed the need for aggressive fire protection.

Fire Marshal Dan Stefano outlined the department’s existing efforts, including the use of goats and hand crews to establish fuel breaks between development and open spaces, weed abatement to remove vegetation on private properties, and fuel modification zones, undeveloped areas modified with specialized plants, irrigations systems and setbacks to decrease their volatility.

Several residents expressed concern over the negligence of some property owners who allow weeds to flourish. Ken Sadler, among them, urged “more aggressive city action against negligent property owners.”

Given forecasts about a dangerous fire season ahead, the council might also consider steps such as new parking rules during “red flag conditions” to ensure fire trucks easy passage on narrow streets, and requiring, rather than simply encouraging, home owners to maintain defensible space on their property, said resident Matt Lawson.

Council member Toni Iseman suggested a need for more public education on how to create defensible space and what is approved vegetation. Such a list exists, Stefano said; one of the best trees is live oak.

Ember showers are the department’s greatest concern, explained LaTendresse, as embers can travel up to two miles, over fuel breaks at the city’s boundaries. Asked by Whalen what more can be done, he suggested more fuel modification areas “on some of our interior canyons,” since “ember showers from outside can light up those areas.”

This would require first obtaining permits to add new areas to the city’s existing 14 fuel modification zones, and then preparing those areas, said LaTendresse, who noted that the cost of modifying the latest zone added in Oro Canyon came to about $110,000.

“We have an obligation to maximize fuel modification to the extent that we can,” insisted Whalen.

City Manager John Pietig said the council could look at finding funding at an upcoming budget meeting on June 18.

Plants received more attention throughout the evening.

Resident Marianne Blume objected to a request by a property owner to designate four eucalyptus trees at the corner of Ocean Way and Moss Street as heritage trees. She protested because current rules require property owners within 300 feet be notified about such a designation, while a draft version of a proposed city view ordinance would allow property owners to complain about view obstructions from as far as 1,000 feet away.

Blume, a member of a view preservation group, argued that the tree designation should be delayed until owners within 1,000 feet are notified.

Mayor Kelly Boyd pointed out that an unapproved draft ordinance has no bearing on council decisions.

With the property owner’s commitment to trimming the century old trees and an endorsement by a neighbor impacted most by their presence, the council voted unanimously to approve the application.

The council also approved the staff recommendation that the city’s tree maintenance contract shift to Anaheim’s West Coast Arborists, based on their service ranking and low bid.

Modern Tree Services’ contract expires in June and staff obtained seven competing bids for a new contract.

In addition to trimming and replacement of damaged trees, the contract calls for updating an inventory of trees on city streets and in parks, including GPS, maps and online access.

Beautification Council members Joanne Sutch and Ruben Flores said the maintenance contract is inadequate for proper tree maintenance, regardless of the company. “There are a lot of areas where we can do a better job at curbing vegetation,” Flores said.

Iseman noted that she receives many view complaints about city trees. “We have to be the good neighbor,” she said.

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