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Law requiring solutions for blocked views brings fewer problems than expected

When the Laguna Beach City Council adopted a revised view ordinance in mid-2014, rumors swirled that the city would receive a deluge of complaints from residents seeking to restore sightlines of the ocean or surrounding hillsides lost to overgrown trees and other vegetation.

Statistics the city provided last week, though, tell a different story.

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Since the revised ordinance took effect in January 2015, the city has received 25 applications from residents seeking to restore their views. The legislation requires property owners to attempt a solution on their own, or with help of a mediator, before the city-appointed View Restoration Committee considers the matter at a public hearing.

The updated ordinance allows residents to use the date they purchased the home or Nov. 4, 2003 — the date used in the prior law — whichever is earlier, to establish a record of a view, usually through photographic evidence.

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Community Development Director Greg Pfost listened to residents' predictions of an onslaught of claims before the new ordinance became law.

"I heard, "Be prepared to have a line out the door,' " Pfost said. "There has not been a line. People are interested to see how the ordinance will play out. I've heard property owners who have attended [view committee meetings] to see how things play out, so that may delay [filing a claim]."

Planning Commissioner Sue Kempf, part of a committee initiated by Councilman Kelly Boyd that drafted a revised ordinance, noticed a trend occurring throughout the city before the new law took effect.

"The committee did a lot of site visits, and we all noticed that more people were trimming," Kempf said. "Perhaps they knew the ordinance was coming. The goal was keeping people maintaining vegetation while being respectful to the neighbors. We did not advocate for wholesale tree removal."

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Under the current ordinance, a property owner alleging a view blockage must try to work out a solution with his or her neighbor harboring the trees or vegetation before the city becomes involved. If the parties can't reach consensus, then the property owner pays $500 for a city-hired mediator to step in.

Of the 25 restoration applications, a mediator resolved five cases while parties in another two cases worked out issues by themselves.

If mediation doesn't work, the aggrieved landowner may file a view-restoration claim with a $630 price tag. Once a resident files a claim, city staff visits the site, interviews the property and vegetation owners and schedules a public hearing where the View Restoration Committee considers the evidence.

Since last June, the committee has deliberated four claims.

The hearings have helped some neighbors reach a compromise. During a hearing last July, a resident agreed to remove a 50-foot tall ash tree that a neighbor said blocked views of the ocean and Catalina Island.

At other times, neighbors have not agreed on a solution, such as during a hearing Monday when a property owner seeking to restore an unobstructed view did not accept a neighbor's proposed planting plan in fear the trees would eventually obstruct sightlines.

Boyd, who desired a codified process that would give residents a means to address their view concerns, said the overall process is an improvement.

"Most people aren't going past a mediator, which is good," Boyd said. "There was a worry that 50 to 60 people would go crazy. In the past, someone could say, 'Hell with you,' and the view would be blocked. Now people are working it out, which is a great thing."

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Offending vegetation must be within 500 feet of the claimant's property line and at least six feet tall to be subject to a claim.

The current ordinance has its critics, though, who say certain parts could be changed. Laguna officials have received complaints from residents who say vegetation owners should bear a greater share of mediation and trimming costs, according to a city staff report.

City staff would also like to change parts of the ordinance, including a section that requires a person filing the view claim to pay $500 for an arborist's report if the View Restoration Committee requests one. Currently, the city shoulders that cost. In addition, the property owner filing the claim pays for the initial, restorative work, such as removing a tree. The vegetation owner is responsible for agreed-upon ongoing maintenance.

Committee Chairman Ara Hovanesian called current costs "substantial" and was worried about placing greater financial burden on residents, according to minutes from a Dec. 7 public meeting.

"The City Council adopted a budget to implement the ordinance, so the commitment was made to fund it," Hovanesian said.

City staff will eventually present suggested changes to the view ordinance to the council. On Jan. 26, the council will consider adopting a separate ordinance related to city-maintained trees and vegetation. The draft ordinance, available on the city's website at lagunabeachcity.net, outlines a process for residents wishing to restore lost views due to trees planted on public property.

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