View Committee Clears its First Dispute

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Laguna’s fledgling View Restoration Committee settled their first case on Monday, July 6, effectively restoring the view of Pinecrest Drive homeowners Roxane and Robert Simon.

Despite a failed mediation between the Simons and vegetation owner Roy Henderson, the parties agreed to the committee’s ruling in what turned out to be a very civil procedure.

Since the ordinance took effect Dec. 17, the city has received 13 view restoration claims, confirmed Tony Farr, the associate planner managing the program. The Simon claim was the first to be heard, but the ordinance so far seems to be serving its purpose: providing a neutral pathway to resolve often acrimonious conflicts among neighbors. View claimants each paid $630 to file; the cost rose to $690 on July 1 with the newly adopted city budget.

Two of the claims were withdrawn after the vegetation owners voluntarily trimmed their trees. In another, neighbors are working on an agreement outside of mediation. The parties in three claims are considering agreements proposed in mediation, which costs claimants an additional $500. Four claims are scheduled for mediation, one claim will come before the view arbiters in a couple of months and another is under review, Farr said.

The ordinance gives the committee’s rulings authority by making an appeal of its decision to the City Council truly onerous at a cost of $2,500.

The committee members, including chair Ara Hovanesian, co-chair Katherine Koster, Doug Cortez, Ruben Flores, and Chris Toy, had done their homework, having visited the site and read the entire staff report as well as all communications from the concerned parties.

Though committee members stumbled here and there on points of procedure, the significance of staff findings or some finer points of the ordinance, Farr and Community Development Director Greg Pfost were on hand to offer guidance and clarifications.

After hearing from both sides, the committee agreed with the staff determination that Henderson’s ash tree had indeed grown up to obstruct the documented view of the ocean and Catalina Island that the Simons had previously enjoyed from their living room.

Roxane Simon said that after purchasing their home in 2009, she and her husband had documented their view in February 2010. Trying to maintain that view “has been torturous,” she said, noting that the deciduous ash tree “grows like a weed” and would require multiple trimmings throughout the year in order to be kept in check. What’s more, their offers to pay Henderson to remove that and another tree had been rejected, she said.

Henderson contended that he was trying very hard to balance his need of vegetation for privacy from other homes against obstructing the Simons’ view. And though the Simons did offer to pay for tree removal, they wanted to control the contractors, he said, and he was averse to the idea of a “motivated landscaper” coming onto his property.

During the hearing, Henderson agreed with an observation by Flores, a horticulturist, that an evergreen species could provide better year-round protection from peeping neighbors, and he conceded that it would still afford him sufficient privacy if the height were limited to the top rail of the Simons’ deck.

Cortez noted that the neighbors could be fighting for years to come “if we don’t find a permanent solution that is sustainable.”

Given the ash tree’s inappropriateness for the location and high growth rate, the committee found that its removal and replacement would be better than ordering severe trimming, which would require frequent maintenance. The ordinance permits the committee to impose pruning, but not to mandate tree removal without the owner’s consent.

Henderson consented and agreed to confirm an appropriate replacement with staff. Per the ordinance, the Simons will pay for the tree swap. They also agreed to fund digging out the ash rootball to prevent regrowth.

Calling for a “complete resolution” to ensure “long term neighborly-ness,” Koster included another stipulation that Henderson maintain the height of all vegetation in his yard below the top of the Simons’ railing. He agreed.

“I’m really glad that you all want to see peace between the neighbors to last,” Laguna Beach resident Kathleen Kane told the committee after observing the proceedings. “I think we’re all looking to get the best results and I think you came up with that tonight,” she added.

 

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