After listening to an analysis of a Laguna Beach fuel modification project, including testimony from Fire Chief Jeff LaTendresse about fire conditions exacerbated by the drought, the California Coastal Commission effectively green-lighted a project to thin dense brush in Arch Beach Heights last week.
The decision turns aside an appeal from a resident of the hillside neighborhood, Marc Wright, that halted the fire department’s intent to remove half the vegetation from the open space abutting homes in Nyes and Oro Canyons.
LaTendresse, reached for comment Friday, said he hopes to see the project ready to go by fall.
At a hearing on Thursday, Aug. 13, the Coastal Commission found “no substantial issue” with the July appeal by Wright, who did not attend the proceedings. The project, as approved by the city in May, “is consistent with the habitat protection, view protection, and hazards policies and standards of the City’s certified Local Coastal Program,” coastal staff noted in their report.
Despite sensitive habitat in the area, “the local coastal development permit includes adequate mitigation to minimize and or avoid potential adverse impacts on coastal resources,” the report stated.
In his testimony to the commission, LaTendresse described the importance to firefighters of creating a buffer of defensible space in the steeply sloped interior canyons that are bordered by the homes of 1,500 residents.
Firefighters need the space to both defend structures and keep an open egress route in the event of a fire, LaTendresse explained.
While Wright didn’t show up to take advantage of the three minutes allotted to him for a presentation, Laguna Beach officials upped their time to five minutes, divided between LaTendresse, City Manager John Pietig and Mayor Pro Tem Steve Dicterow.
Pietig said that the project will be completed in one year, that a biologist will be on site to tag sensitive plant species and that Laguna Canyon Foundation will also oversee the vegetation removal.
Dicterow offered further praise for coastal staff’s analysis of the project, urged its approval and said the importance of the safety considerations prompted him to take an entire day off work to attend the hearing.
Commissioner Mary Shallenberger said she appreciated that the city opted to require a coastal development permit for the project. “I think it’s the right way to do it, so I am in strong support of finding no substantial issue with this,” said Shallenberger, who asked LaTendresse if Laguna Beach had plans to reinstate inspections of defensible space on private property.
The voluntary program she referred to started after the 1993 fire and ended before he joined the department in 1997, LaTendresse said. Nevertheless, he said he hopes to present a draft ordinance regulating homeowner-maintenance of defensible space to the City Council in the near future.
Photo: Thick brush that creeps right to property lines in Arch Beach Heights is what firefighters intend to thin.