Laguna Beach Planning Commission reaffirms wildfire defense plans

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Natures Image landscapers Richard Aguirre (right) and Alberto Vargas trim invasive plants in August 2019 in Oro Canyon. Photo by Daniel Langhorne

By Lou Ponsi, Special to the Independent

The Planning Commission on Wednesday unanimously approved changes to the Landscape and Scenic Highways Element of the General Plan related to wildfire fuel modification zones and other fire safety matters.

The commission approved the amendments to ensure that the Landscape and Scenic Highways Element is consistent with related modifications made to the Municipal Code and reviewed by the five-member panel in November.

Amendments to the Landscape and Scenic Highways Element will likely go before the City Council for final approval at its scheduled Feb. 23 meeting.

If approved by the council, the revisions will eliminate the current requirement that wildfire fuel modification programs be approved by the Design Review Board. Wildfire fuel modification in Laguna Beach typically entails trimming back native and invasive brush around homes to provide firefighters with defensible space.

Instead, fuel modification programs, which apply to new construction and major remodels in the city’s very high fire hazard severity zones, would be considered by the fire marshal and community development director.

Environmentalists are opposed to the amendments, insisting the less restrictive guidelines would allow for infringement by homeowners into environmentally sensitive habitat areas.

The group Save Laguna Trees posted a petition on the website Change.org. which states the rules were originally meant to apply to properties on the edge of the wildlands, “but now the Fire Department wants to apply them to 87-percent of Laguna Beach. This would be devastating for the landscape of Laguna Beach.”

The petition had 581 signatures as of Thursday morning.

According to the petition, the new rules proposed by the Fire Department would “have a devastating effect on the unique, richly landscaped garden character of Laguna Beach.  Laguna Beach is a city of trees. Their beautiful tapestry of foliage obscures the lot boundaries and creates park-like neighborhoods.”

Commissioner Ken Sadler didn’t necessarily disagree, but said the amendments are meant to keep residents and homes safe.

“It’s nice to have trees and it’s nice to have shade in the back yard,” Sadler said. “I’m supportive of all that. But my personal feeling is the prioritization has to be on life, structures and properties above landscaping. Let’s keep things in perspective here. Let’s be proactive and let’s do what we can to keep our community as safe as possible.”

If the proposed changes to city law are approved by the council, fuel modification zones for new construction and major remodels would be considered by the fire marshal and community development director.

Proposed changes also include expanded the fuel modification zone requirements to properties within the Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zone which makes up close to 90-percent of city land.

“This modification only applies to new construction and major remodels so the fire department isn’t going to be running around with chainsawing down trees wherever they think it is necessary to do so,” Commissioner Jorg Dubin said. “So I think the fear factor… is really not based in anything except their own fear.”

The amendments would also put Laguna Beach more in compliance with the state’s wildland urban interface codes, requiring the maintenance of “defensible space of 100 feet from each side and from the front and rear of the structure but not beyond the property line unless required by municipal ordinance.

“I’m satisfied that the revisions are narrow enough that this is not a risk. Ironically, I think with only 25, 25 projects on average each year, one could argue that this is potentially not impactful enough. So I support this and am prepared to move forward.”

Regulations within the Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zone include prohibiting wood and plastic fences, gazebos trellis and any other flammable accessories.

Other rules within the zone include keeping trees and shrubs taller than four feet at least 10 feet from a structure, limiting groups of trees and shrubs to no more than three and separating groups of trees and shrubs by at least 10 feet.

Some tree specimens are exempt from these regulations.

“Safety is the biggest item,” Chair Pro Tem Anne Johnson said. “It should be number-one on our list for everything. With 87 percent of the city in this hazard zone, we definitely need this legislation.”

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