A View to a Compromise Emerges

Jim and Mimi Healey take exception to a Laguna Beach neighbor’s tree that has grown into their view. A new ordinance may provide a remedy.
Jim and Mimi Healey take exception to a Laguna Beach neighbor’s tree that has grown into their view. A new ordinance may provide a remedy.

If a neighbor’s unchecked vegetation now blocks the view that enticed you to buy your home, the latest draft of a proposed Laguna Beach view ordinance may provide recourse, thanks to one of three key changes made following the most recent public hearing in December.

The view committee and city staff earlier this month agreed on a new draft, which should be posted on the city’s website by next week.

“The committee wanted to solve as many problems as we could, and staff wanted to make sure we had a defensible ordinance,” said committee chair Larry Nokes, adding that the process was helped by Community Development Director John Montgomery and City Attorney Phil Kohn, who attended the Dec. 3 hearing and heard residents’ grievances first hand.

Among them, disappointment that the proposed ordinance included a repeal of the existing hedge height ordinance, extoled by most as quite effective; that it stipulated that property owners could only defend a single “primary” view; and that it allowed restoration of a view that existed since the later of either the property’s purchase date or Nov. 4, 2003, the effective date of the city’s previous view ordinance.

After deliberating and soliciting public feedback for nearly a year, the eight-member view equity committee last fall submitted a draft view ordinance to city staff for input. The effort to harmonize the committee’s vision with staff concerns about legal and practical issues resulted in a document riddled with compromise, Nokes said at the time.

Having high-level staff listen to the hue and cry over the draft’s provisions provided a turning point, said committee member Sue Kempf. While the staff had tweaked the document to shield the city from liability, reduce rancor among residents and keep it cost-effective, the impassioned feedback gave them the impetus to go back to the drawing board.

Some “meaningful compromises” are written into the new draft, which the committee will recommend for adoption to the City Council, Nokes said. The council is expected to review the measure, perhaps during a stand-alone meeting in March.

Significantly, that draft reinstates a slightly modified hedge-height ordinance, allows property owners the chance to defend more than one view and sets date of acquisition as the sole trigger date.

Nokes gave Montgomery credit for the legwork on reincorporating the hedge ordinance so as to maintain its integrity and not cause confusion with the proposed view ordinance. The terms of the other two items solidified after Kohn and Nokes, who is also an attorney, pored over the two court of appeals cases where view ordinances of Rancho Palos Verdes and Tiburon were upheld. Both of those ordinances served as models for Laguna’s effort.

While some of the public will surely find the latest draft to be too lenient and other will say it’s not strong enough, Kempf believes that a judicious implementation of the ordinance will serve to dispel many fears. The ordinance is meant to compel mediation and trimming, not tree cutting, she said. “In general, it encourages people to maintain their foliage in a respectful way.”

Montgomery characterized the latest draft as “in good shape,” though he nevertheless believes it will remain controversial given the strongly divided public. “We’ll have to see how it plays out,” he said, anticipating the public will have a new opportunity to air their concerns when the City Council reviews the measure probably sometime in March.

Kempf believes the process played out well, with high levels of public participation that included people new to the process, as well as compromises with city staff. She also praised her fellow committee members, including Planning Commission member Ken Sadler, Design Review Board member Roger McErlane, landscape architect Bob Borthwick, Nokes, architect Morris Skendarian, landscape architect Susan Whitin and Chris Toy.

“We put a thoughtful ordinance together,” concluded Kempf.

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