Comments raised during a hearing Tuesday served to highlight key points of contention in a draft Laguna Beach view ordinance, such as balancing the right to a view with the pleasure of foliage, the perimeter allowed for a claim, and whether the date of purchase matters in determining view rights.
Of a smaller crowd of 80 residents, 25 spoke, most of whom had reviewed the most recent draft, posted on the city’s website Friday, May 10. Many had already e-mailed comments to the committee.
“This is an evolutionary process,” said view equity committee member and local architect Morris Skenderian, summing up the effort begun in January to rewrite the city’s view rules by at least partly relying on a court-tested law adopted by Rancho Palos Verdes.
Committee chair Larry Nokes insisted that their mandate to come up with an enforceable ordinance meant finding a way for residents to recapture views in a responsible way, but fell short of draconian measures that would change the city’s character.
Yet many, including other committee members, found the current draft proposal too soft in its statement of purpose, criticizing language alluding to a “balance” between view and vegetation without clearly prioritizing views.
“It is undeniable that there is a hierarchy of view over trees,” said committee member Chris Toy, perhaps the committee’s strongest advocate for unequivocal language favoring views over trees. “If you put more restrictions in [the ordinance about saving vegetation], you take away the power of the city to restore views,” he said, insisting that a powerful tool is needed.
“There are generations of people who have been victimized by foliage growers who don’t care about their neighbors,” said Jeff Thornton, a member of Citizens for View Preservation and Restoration, a grass-roots group that has attracted 100 people to its email list. The group is led by Steve Caporaso; Thornton along with Doug Cortez, Wayne Phelps, Marianne Blume and Greg Gilroy round out its steering committee.
Thornton said the group’s goal is to raise awareness about view blockage and to contribute to the dialogue to sculpt a better ordinance.
In a position statement issued this week, the group describes views as “irreplaceable,” and outlined several areas of disagreement with the committee’s draft proposal. Notably, they oppose the ordinance’s stipulation of “a primary viewing area,” advocating instead for all property owners’ right to multiple viewing areas; they disagree with the stipulation that offending vegetation be within 1,000 feet of the view in question; they don’t think date of purchase of a home should be a consideration in determining a rightful view; and they would like the vegetation owner to pay for the process.
With a few exceptions, most speakers, whether belonging to this group or not, reiterated these positions.
Committee member Susan Whitin argued that “the ordinance needs a very clear statement about the priority of views that has been lost a little in this draft.”
“Our job is to understand both sides of the fence – those who own vegetation and those who want views,” insisted Skenderian. Recognizing that the majority of the audience belonged to the latter group, he said he would be interested in hearing what the other 10,000 people not present would have to say.
The view preservation group also requested that so-called heritage trees not be exempt from compliance with the proposed rules. Registering a tree for heritage status solely to avoid compliance should not be allowed, Skenderian said, but the city has already designated some with special status, “and those trees will not be topped and won’t be removed for a view issue.”
Clearly the ongoing hearings and floods of feedback have helped solidify opinions.
“I’ve come around on the date and distance issue,” said committee member Ken Sadler. He now believes the simplest solution is to not specify any date or distance limitations in the claim process and to allow the decision-making committee, of as yet indeterminate make up, to decide the issues case by case.
Since consensus over creating legal recourse to contest obscured views as well as antipathy for wholesale clear cutting didn’t carry over to policy specifics, the framers of the ordinance seem to be relying increasingly on the discretion of this arbitrating body to weigh the variables of potential disputes.
“The concept of fairness is something the committee will have to be imbued with,” said Nokes.
One of the few residents who spoke about the value of vegetation, Ginger Osborne admitted to getting emotional at the idea that so many seem to want to “just chop down the trees.”
Ruben Flores, noting the public backlash over the recent removal of 10 trees from downtown sidewalks, and fearing a “mob mentality,” suggested temperance going forward, and asked that a horticulturalist be included among the view arbitrators.
Michael Wilkes took issue with inadequate definitions in the ordinance, asking that the terms “substantial obstruction” and “reasonable privacy” be better defined, among others. He also expressed surprise that the term “topping” appeared at all as a remedy, since it is a practice opposed by the International Society of Arboriculture. “There’s a long way to go in terms of defining the definitions that will be the strength of this ordinance,” he said.
Nokes admitted there’s still work to be done. The draft to be presented to the City Council on Monday, May 21, should be considered a progress report not a final working copy, he said, promising public input will be incorporated in the next draft to be posted in three weeks.
Their next meeting is scheduled for 4:30 p.m. June 25 in the City Council chambers.
“We’ll try to strike a harmony,” said Nokes.