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Views Clouded by Subjectivity

Consider a Top of the World property owner, his home studded by three large pine trees for decades, urged Larry Nokes, chair of Laguna Beach’s view equity committee. The homeowner fears if a view ordinance is enacted, the neighbor behind him will push for their removal. “How do you balance the existing condition of the neighborhood against the view rights?” asked Nokes.

Wayne Phelps and Greg Gilroy, members of the Citizens for View Preservation and Restoration, a group pressing for a powerful view preservation ordinance, struggled with a response, suggesting that an arbitrating committee would have to assess the case.

Testimony during Tuesday’s hearing highlights the subjective variables the committee continues to wrestle with since taking up their task earlier this year. And a wider range of opinions emerged for the first time in testimony previously dominated by ordinance proponents.

More diversity among participants resonated with resident Sharon Johnson, who described the last hearing as “a very scary time to be a tree in Laguna Beach.”

While participants expressed growing consensus for clear, objective criteria to decide what views qualify for restorative action, consensus dissolved over defining those specific criteria. Proponents for a moderate and strong ordinance alike resorted to a default position, proposing that the ordinance language allow resolution of view disputes on a case-by-case basis.

Adding to the confusion, a new element of subjectivity entered the debate from residents advocating for consideration of neighborhood character in the resolution of any view claims. And some proposed giving neighbors a voice in the claim process.

The committee may yet shift position on still contentious issues including the date from which a view can be claimed, the distance of vegetation that could be contested as obstructing views, who would pay administrative and restoration fees and who should serve on the arbitrating committee that will make the ultimate decisions.

To include all voices in the debate, the committee asked three interest groups to present their positions at this week’s meeting; a group opposing the ordinance led by John Thomas, Liza Stewart, Ginger Osborne and Charlotte Maserik; Citizens for View Preservation and Restoration, pushing for an even stronger ordinance; and the Beautification Council, which argues for a moderate approach and the need to better educate the public.

Thomas said his group fears a radical change in the character of Laguna and believe the ordinance may create more conflicts than it resolves.

In the event an ordinance becomes inevitable, Thomas stated a preference for the ordinance’s effective date as the starting point for view claims, a 300-foot limit on view obstructions, and costs that accrue to the view claimants since they are the ones who receive the benefit.

He also called for “fair and objective criteria and clear standards,” and proposed that since the neighborhoods are each unique, they should have input into the criteria. As currently drafted, Thomas sees within the ordinance no protection against a “wholesale mowing of Laguna.”

As it stands, “it is a terrible piece of legislation” with no language protecting even iconic neighborhood trees, agreed Marni Magda.

By contrast, proponents find the proposal too loose to effectively curb vegetation. The ordinance should close loopholes that might be used by neglectful vegetation owners, Phelps said.

He sees views as “irreplaceable assets” and said trees should frame views but property owners should conscientiously maintain them so as not to block neighbors’ views.

Specifically, his group wants multiple areas considered where the draft proposes defense of only a primary viewing area; eliminating a reference to the date of purchase in the decision-making; and a balance between views and foliage, but any ties should be broken in favor of views.

Gilroy added that the burden of cost should be shouldered by the loser, whether the irresponsible vegetation owner or to the property owner who made a frivolous claim.

The Beautification Council recognizes the legitimacy of some claims, said council member Ruben Flores, but they hope to prevent frivolous claims and abuse of the ordinance. In general, the group supports the idea of a property owner’s claim to one primary viewing area, and they want some proof of the previously existing view.

Flores, too, advocated for including distinctive neighborhood identities in the decision making mix, pointing out that Woods Cove, for instance, is so-named because of its majestic specimens.

Establishing objective criteria by neighborhood adds another layer of complexity, said view committee member Roger McErlane. For example, ocean view Cliff Drive and hillside Boat Canyon, both near each other in North Laguna, represent “two different worlds,” he said.

Flores conceded that objectively categorizing neighborhoods could be problematic, in which case a case-by-case evaluation might be more effective. “But I don’t know how feasible that is,” he admitted.

In fact, when pushed for specifics on how to objectively define various criteria to achieve a fair outcome, proponents typically cited too many exceptions to the rule and fell back on the case-by-case model.

“We know it’s difficult to come up with an objective, enforceable ordinance when we are asking for a subjective decision,” said Phelps.

Given such subjectivity, Gilroy said he would rely on the City Council to appoint fair people to the expected arbitrating panel. But neither did consensus emerge as to member qualifications or a selection process for that body.

The view equity committee intends to keep refining its draft based on information gathered at the hearing, and will post the next draft upon completion. The next meeting will probably focus on curbing city-owned trees, said committee chair Larry Nokes.

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