Misgivings Surface Over Opening Up Views



Chris Toy, a member of a committee appointed nearly a year ago to devise a new view ordinance for Laguna Beach, expressed profound disapproval of the latest draft during a public meeting this past Tuesday, Dec. 3.

With new stipulations, the current draft reads like a contract put together by city staff and attorneys, Toy claimed and “assures the destruction of many pre-existing views.”

Toy’s views echoed those expressed by many of the 36 residents who spoke at the hearing, including those of Citizens for View Preservation and Restoration. CVPR leader Doug Cortez said about 80 percent of the 200 people on the group’s e-mail list would be unable to restore views blocked by landscaping based on the current proposal.

The same sticking points continue to cause dissent among the public and the committee members: the ordinance’s trigger date, the distance of offending vegetation from the view-affected property, the number of viewing areas covered by the ordinance on a single property and who will pay for the view restoration process.

And now staff input has strained consensus further.

The current draft amendment to the city’s view preservation ordinance incorporates two significant new elements: a repeal of the existing hedge height ordinance, considered by most to be quite effective; and a clause that requires the property owner that brings a view claim to indemnify the city against any liability and pay expenses if the city’s ordinance faces a legal challenge.

The result, for Cortez’ group and others, is a weaker proposal than in earlier drafts.

Committee chair Larry Nokes said Tuesday that committee members attempted to “harmonize” their proposed draft with “the legal issues and the practical issues” that city staff outlined as well as incorporate the concerns of the different interests groups. “A lot of compromise was made,” said Nokes.

The eight-member view equity committee appointed by Mayor Kelly Boyd at the start of the year includes Planning Commission member Ken Sadler, Design Review Board member Roger McErlane, landscape architect Bob Borthwick, attorney Nokes, architect Morris Skendarian, emergency disaster preparedness committee member Sue Kempf, landscape architect Susan Whitin and Chris Toy.

Tuesday’s meeting marked the eighth held since February to solicit public feedback. The committee has been posting the various drafts of the tentative view ordinance on the city’s web site since April. After the last meeting in June, the committee conferred with city staff and attorneys, and in October, Nokes and Kempf met with City Manager John Pietig, City Attorney Phil Kohn and Community Development Director John Montgomery, and agreed to include certain provisions. Their final working draft was posted on Oct. 23.

From the start, the committee modeled their draft loosely on the court-tested law adopted by Rancho Palos Verdes. That law established views as a natural resource, gave property owners the right to the view that existed when the lot was created, limited view obstruction claims to within 1,000 feet of the property, and limited property owners to one defensible view. RPV also requires mediation and placed the financial burden on the party pursuing the claim.

Laguna’s proposal also calls for neighbor-to-neighbor consultation and mediation before a claim can be filed, places the initial financial burden on the claimant and set a limit on offending vegetation at 500 feet.

Laguna’s law, though, notably diverges from the strong language in RPV’s policy favoring the right to a view by proposing a balance between the value of vegetation and the value of views.

While the initial July draft offered more leeway on the trigger date and the number of defensible views, the new draft amendment allows for the restoration of a pre-existing view “as it existed on or after either the claimant’s property acquisition date” or Nov. 4, 2003, the effective date of the city’s previous view ordinance, whichever is later. It also only allows for the preservation and restoration of only one “primary view.”

Nokes called the date a “difficult issue,” not surprisingly since many residents and a majority of the committee members opposed setting a specific date, preferring to let a panel decide on a case-by-case basis.

Roger Davis said that view-blocking vegetation has been growing around his house for over 20 years, so establishing a view from 2003 does him no good.

Even so, in the absence of a common law right to a view, the city needed to establish that right by ordinance and the timeframe the committee came up with offers “the best chance of having the statue withstand a legal challenge,” Nokes said.

Palos Verdes had pre-existing policies that maintained trees at 16 feet, establishing a precedent, Nokes said. He suggested that residents might try asking City Council to change the date to the lot creation date, once the ordinance goes before them for review.

Repeal of the hedge height ordinance drew concern almost bordering on alarm despite testimony from Montgomery who said the repeal came out of staff concern over potential confusion between the hedge height ordinance and this new view ordinance. The first regulates hedges within 100 feet of a property line that exceed six feet; the second regulates view obstructions within 500 feet and with no specified height limit. Montgomery also noted that the definition of a hedge needed revising since the hedge height ordinance doesn’t consider trees with trunks.

But many residents and committee members agreed that the hedge height ordinance was an objective law that achieved satisfactory results.

Though most speakers Tuesday night found the draft ordinance to be too lenient, others agreed with Ginger Osborne, who argued that the aesthetic value of vegetation was underplayed and deserved more attention. Marni Magda argued for maintaining vegetation that had become intrinsic to the “neighborhood character” throughout Laguna.

For their part, CVPR issued a statement pointing to numerous shortcomings in the latest proposal, which “weakens the rights of a homeowner to restore views that are a natural and obvious part of their property.”

A number of residents noted that while the Design Review Board can limit the height of new structures so they don’t obstruct existing views of neighbors, owners of those same new homes might plant trees that would obstruct the very views the DRB had tried to protect.

Overall, the committee members acknowledged that compromises to address resident and staff concerns had yielded a draft ordinance that might benefit from future tweaks.

“It’s a good starting point,” Sadler said, and suggested we “give it a try and see how it works over time.”

“The interpretation of all of this gets down to real people interpreting real situations; it’s not divorced from our everyday lives,” said Whitin, also a committee member. “I have faith that the implementation will be sound.” She also expressed faith in the mediation process, which RPV staff said resolved 85 percent of their complaints. “I think we are all in this for the right reasons and we’re in for the long haul.”

Nokes said he hopes the Council might pass the ordinance, but delay implementation by testing to see the results of voluntary mediation.

Though intended as a final draft, a committee subgroup will meet with city staff to look at the hedge height ordinance, either incorporating it more fully or keeping it separate, and return with another revision that will be posted for public review at a subsequent hearing.




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