Facing a $1,000 fine for missing a deadline to submit plans on his Native American sweat lodge, Laguna Beach resident Andrew Soliz intends to comply with what the city asks as long as he’s able exercise his right to worship as he chooses.
Soliz, who has used the sweat lodge for sacred Native American religious ceremonies in his Bluebird Canyon backyard since last October, submitted official plans to construct the willow-branch structure last month after complaints from neighbors triggered an inspection by city building officials.
Soliz, a traditional Lakota ceremonial leader, moved his family moved here from Ojai two years ago. After the plans are checked, a review will be scheduled by the city’s design review board.
“At the end of the day, I don’t want anyone to say I didn’t do what I was asked to do,” said Soliz. “I have children who are watching how this is handled. My neighbors have children who are watching, as well. I want my children to see that you have to be respectful of all your relations, everyone around you, and go through things properly.”
A problem arose with the sweat lodge in February when a male participant stepped out of the tent and relieved himself in full frontal view of Soliz’s neighbors and their children. Three complaints were lodged with the city.
John Montgomery, the city’s director of community development, said he considered exempting the sweat lodge from design review as an accessory building to Soliz’s house, which would have meant a simpler over-the-counter permit. However, Montgomery determined the structure would not be exempt due to the neighbors’ complaints. “Neighborhood compatibility is a design review criterion,” he said.
Soliz said he was fined because he didn’t ask for the city’s permission first before putting up his sweat lodge. “I didn’t think anyone was my enemy and I still don’t,” Soliz commented. “I just think people don’t understand. I think a system’s been set up in place here that over-regulates people’s freedom in their own homes.”
He considers having a tipi and a sweat lodge on his property part of his religious freedom and is prepared to defend the cause. “My relatives had to fight and even give up their lives so we, as natives, have the rights that we have today,” he said.
But some people, particularly neighbors who lodged complaints, see the sweat lodge as a disruption and an eyesore. Soliz’s backyard is open to the road and adjacent to a home daycare, Bluebird Babysitting. “We can see everything,” said a neighbor requesting anonymity who lives nearby.
As a result of the inspection, Soliz was told his conversion of a garage into an artist’s studio was also illegal, said Montgomery. Soliz already dismantled the 15-foot-high tipi in his backyard. He said he’s willing to follow city protocol up to a point.
As a result of his predicament, Soliz said strangers stop him on the street. “They flag me down in town and say, ‘Good for you. Laguna Beach used to be built on freedom of expression and artistic expression and something changed.’ Now someone’s standing up and saying that’s not okay. It’s making people remember why they moved here in the first place,” he said.
Soliz says the propane tanks he uses to heat rocks for the sweat lodge meet city fire safety standards. Fire Marshall Tom Christopher said he handed the case over to the city’s code enforcement department. “It’s in full compliance with fire code,” Soliz said. “It’s a propane barbeque grill, no different than what people throw hot-dogs on. There’s nothing unsafe about anything I’m doing here, nothing.”
Code enforcement officer Fred Fix said Soliz is “exactly where he needs to be” in the approval process by filing his plans and proceeding with design review.
Soliz said he’s ready to pursue legal remedies to safeguard what he considers his constitutional rights.