John Hensley finally got the initial go-ahead for the driveway he always wanted, a steep, 100-foot-long incline that has gotten neighbors above and below colliding.
Hensley is building a 3,600-square-foot home at the top of Ruby Street in the Woods Cove neighborhood for his wife and 14-month-old and 10-year-old daughters. The home will replace a 1927 cottage they moved into in 2009 that he said is falling down around its ankles.
His property at 530 Ruby St. abuts the dirt dead-end of Crestview Place, a narrow street with panoramic Pacific Ocean views. It’s a street the city’s fire chief, Jeff LaTendresse, says is particularly difficult to maneuver, requiring fire engines to back up and turn around at a hairpin curve.
With significant and costly changes, including street widening and retaining walls, both city and fire department staff recommended access to Hensley’s home from Crestview Place, which complies with the neighborhood’s low-impact specific plan and “rustic” character.
But a built-out 50-foot wide cul-de-sac allowing for access bolstered by massive retaining walls does not fit in, the City Council decided Tuesday in a unanimous decision to support Ruby Street access. Details, council members said, can be worked out later.
The conflict concerns land-use versus fire-safety issues, said City Manager John Pietig. It serves as a specific example of the town’s continuing struggle to balance property rights and emergency access.
City officials have been preoccupied with the conflict in recent years, pressing for fire-safety legislation, removing flammable brush through fuel-modification programs, establishing no-parking zones during extreme weather conditions and supporting measures to increase taxes to underwrite utility-pole undergrounding for lower fire risk.
The access to Hensley’s property leads from the east end of Ruby to a tucked-away hillside enclave of homes on Crestview Place. LaTendresse said he prefers widening Crestview Place for emergency vehicle access, acknowledging that the bill for the costly proposition would be footed by Hensley.
The City Council debated whether access could be reached from other areas in the neighborhood, questioning the need for a 74,000-pound fire engine on what would in essence be Hensley’s driveway. Council member Rob Zur Schmiede acknowledged LaTendresse’s companion concern over safe access and exit for firefighters.
The council’s decision seems to comply with policies in the safety element of the city’s General Plan, adopted two years after the 1993 firestorm destroyed 441 homes: “Private driveways shall not exceed 150 feet in length without providing a turnaround, loop circulation or secondary emergency access….”
The Ruby Street driveway is expected to cost less than the Crestview cul-de-sac. Council member Toni Iseman asked Commuity Development Director Greg Pfost if $1 million would cover it. Pfost simply said it would be expensive. Utilities on Ruby Street recently went underground, so added expense will incur there, Hensley, a software executive, said. He anticipates the entire project to run from $1 to $2 million.
The driveway became an issue over the last year because a plan for the neighborhood there, known as the Diamond/Crestview Specific Plan, calls for access from Crestview Place. The city’s Design Review Board unanimously sided with Ruby Street, passing its review to the council for definitive direction for city staff.
Getting plans approved has already taken seven years. “It’s been painful,” Hensley told the council Tuesday, saying he’s not hopeful that it won’t take another seven years. Neighbors have been disputing the driveway from both sides with letters and even a petition, according to documents in the city report. More than doubling the size of the house also incurred neighbors’ scrutiny.
Ruby Street neighbors have voiced the greater opposition, Hensley noted. “I created a firestorm I never wanted,” he said. “I’ve got great neighbors below. I’ve got great neighbors above.”
Hensley said access from below allows the house to be lower and less intrusive. “I love Laguna and I love what Laguna is about. I love the size of this lot. It’s a huge lot with lots of vegetation.” Hensley later said he and his family moved out about a year and a half ago and are renting the cottage out while residing nearby on Glenneyre Street.
“One of the bonuses of having (access) down below,” said house designer Bill Peters, “is the scale of the house.” Peters said Ruby Street access was never part of his design since the street is not included in the Diamond/Crestview Specific Plan. “It’s a much easier access from below,” he said.
Hensley’s old house has no car access and no garage. He and his wife parked down on Ruby Street and hiked the 58 dilapidating stone and railroad-tie steps, known as the “secret stairway,” to their home, groceries and all, until his wife became pregnant. Hensley said his wife stumbled on the steps when she was six-month’s along and no longer wanted to take the risk. Plans for the new home include an attached two-car garage, according to the city’s report to the council Tuesday.
One of the fire department’s concerns is that a Ruby Street driveway would be too steep and narrow to accommodate heavy fire engines that will also need to turn around. Iseman suggested to “step lightly,” leaving as small a footprint on the environment as possible and getting a smaller fire engine. She said she was also concerned about the hours of city staff time a seemingly small concern has taken.
The new driveway will be bordered by a new and improved “secret stairway,” to which the city will contribute financially, according to the council’s direction.