Landscape Experts Debunk Conventional Wisdom


With the 20-year anniversary of Laguna Beach’s firestorm as the backdrop, fire safety expert Richard Halsey recently described a scenario that runs counter to the popular lore.

“The most volatile fuel is the home,” he said, not the vegetation around it. A properly landscaped yard with well-maintained trees and shrubs can serve as a sponge that protects a home from flying embers, according to Halsey, author of  “Fire, Chaparral, And Survival In Southern California.” Homeowners should first address greater risk factors such as a shake roof, a wooden fence or wood stacked  against the house, he said.

Halsey was one of six experts who shared their knowledge during the first of two public forums about updating the landscape and scenic highways policies to guide the city’s general plan for the next 20 years. The second public workshop to help define strategies and building consensus on landscape issues is planned for 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 29, in the Council Chambers.

Staff and planners envision a modernized plan that emphasizes sustainability, fire safety, and soil stability, as well as neighborhood character, scenic highways, streetscapes and more.

Planning Commission chair Robert Zur Schmiede and fellow Commission member Anne Johnson are working with Selva Partners principal Greg Vail and local landscape architects Bob Borthwick and Ann Christoph to revise the city’s 1975 scenic highways element and the 1995 landscape and scenic highways resource document.

“Some things will challenge conventional wisdom,” warned Vail, referring to the concepts espoused by the forum’s panelists, who went on to debunk some common misperceptions about fire safety, geology, landscape history, habitat management, sustainability and urban design.

Even so, central themes surfaced across disciplines: the benefits of encouraging use of native plants and species that’s aren’t invasive as well as proper maintenance could improve fire safety, enhance land stability, conserve water, promote sustainability and preserve Laguna’s character, among other things.

Geologist Jamie Fink noted that native drought-resistant plants help maintain stability in south-facing slopes, since they don’t require watering, which contributes to slides.

Biologist Trish Smith, a Nature Conservancy field ecologist, urged the use of native plants in urban and residential gardens to curb water and fertilizer use, making them more sustainable and a habitat for native birds and butterflies. Denuded slope behind City Hall could benefit from planting of prickly pear cactus that could curb erosion and might also attract the coastal cactus wren, she said.

For fire safety, Halsey, too, promoted native plants and trees over grasses and clear-cutting. Both grasses and non-native invasive weeds that sprout in bulldozed areas easily catch fire from wind-blown embers, he said. While native oak trees, if properly maintained, can create heat sinks and actually draw embers. Native plants, if irrigated, won’t burn the way the grass and weeds will, he said.

“It’s the urban fuels you have to worry about,” Halsey said, adding that pine and eucalyptus trees can protect a home if trimmed of debris. Most fire-safety ordinances target vegetation as an easier fix than a roof replacement. “It’s not necessarily that it works; it’s just politically more viable,” he said.

Those same ember-catching trees provide oxygen, cooling shade and walkability to the urban environment, said Steve Kellenberg, an urban designer who specializes in sustainable communities. The town’s mix of vegetation, unlike that in planned communities, adds character, he pointed out.

Native plants help move the community towards using fewer resources, though it’s an uphill climb, according to Bob Perry, landscape architecture professor emeritus at Cal Poly Pomona. “I have not yet seen a sustainable human landscape,” said Perry, calling that goal “still far away.”

Perry said Laguna could move closer to the goal by adopting landscapes that capture rainfall and don’t require energy-intensive products such as herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers. For example, he said, the energy cost to maintain an acre of turf grass far exceeds its benefit as a fuel, he said.

While a coastal hillside of native plants that requires no mowing, little watering and no chemical fertilizers will pay for itself in terms of energy produced against energy consumed for years, Perry said.

“Whatever we can do in our landscape practice to reduce our use of energy is the real target of ordinances and guidelines,” he said, which also includes gasoline guzzled by the trucks of landscape maintenance crews.

Watch the video on line at the city’s web site.


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