Fire Code Thwarts Dream Home

Jea Song with his sons in the background on the hilltop property where he hoped to build a home.
Jea Song with his sons in the background on the hilltop property where he hoped to build a home.

Five years after purchasing what he had been assured was a buildable lot in Canyon Acres, Jae “Randy” Song finds he must either give up his dream of building a home on the property or risk his family’s financial stability by suing the city of Laguna Beach.

The City Council last week denied Song’s appeal of a Planning Commission decision not to interfere with the fire department’s imposition of costly conditions on his project.

At the heart of Song’s dilemma is the application of the city’s fire code to his plans to rebuild on the footprint of a home destroyed by fire in 1982. After reviewing the plans, the fire department determined that a permit could be issued if the owner agreed, among other things, to improve an access road to withstand fire-truck loads of 74,000 pounds.

Currently, vehicles approach the bucolic 12-acre parcel along a crumbled pavement path that is closer to a mountain switchback than a driveway.

That stipulation alone, which Song estimates would cost $1.5 million, makes the project infeasible, he said. On top of that, the fire department would also require him to somehow store enough water on the property to supply 1,000 gallons of water per minute for two hours, which Song says would satisfy requirements for an entire subdivision.

Song and his attorneys insist that since the city code allows the rebuilding of a fire-destroyed home without going through the usual design review, the fire department had no cause to review his plans in the first place. The city “is definitely wrong,” he said, “but you have to count your marbles.”

If he had unlimited funds and no family to worry about, Song said he would probably take the city to court just on principle.

Song and the property’s previous owners had been assured by staff of their right to rebuild a fire destroyed home without it being treated as new development, according to documents they provided city planners. So when Song submitted building plans in February 2014, he expected a quick turnaround. Instead, he received a list of 17 new development conditions that ranged from a hydrology report to a fire department review.

All along, city staff has insisted that regardless of how Song’s permit application was treated, any structure must adhere to the provisions of the fire code.

After an appeal to the Planning Commission failed, Song took hope from the City Council’s decision in April calling for joint discussions. Despite meeting on proposed hilltop building site, the parties had found no common ground by the time they returned to the Council on July 21.

At that hearing, Song’s attorney reiterated a now familiar stance that the fire code provisions were being applied to his client’s project in a discriminatory fashion. “The staff report once again misrepresents this appeal as a fire code issue,” said Neil Popowitz, of the Los Angeles-based firm of Freilich & Popowitz. “This is about equal protection and whether the zoning code is applied to everyone in the same manner or not,” his said.

Staff insisted the fire code does apply and nearby residents agreed.

Marcia Klass, who lives on the property abutting Song’s, claimed that the property’s previous owner had known of the fire safety issues and misled Song. “The road needs to be improved, that’s why nothing’s been done there,” she said.

Canyon Acres resident Penny Milne, recalling the all-too-real scare of the July 3 fire in the neighborhood, called for the strictest interpretation of the fire code. “There’s no reason to compromise our safety,” she said.

Even though staff noted that Song and his fire safety consultant can still work with the fire department on tweaking the imposed conditions, Song said their communications with him so far had revealed no wiggle room. “I feel like we’re speaking two different languages,” he said.



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