Council approves amended view ordinance

Nearly 17 months and eight public hearings after the View Equity Committee was formed, the Laguna Beach City Council unanimously agreed during a special public meeting May 29 to amend the city's view ordinance.

If approved on a second reading, the new ordinance will allow residents to use the date their home was purchased or Nov. 4, 2003 — the date used in the current law — whichever is earlier, to establish their views. They would have to have photographic evidence of a vegetation-free view.

The new legislation requires that the offending vegetation be within 500 feet of the claimant's property line and at least 6 feet tall to be subject to a claim.

Several residents suggested the matter be put to a public vote. Others felt the rules should be stronger, with some favoring greater protection of views and others saying that, trimmed the right way, trees could be part of a great view.

The city formed a View Equity Committee at Councilman Kelly Boyd's request in January 2013 to begin addressing complaints from residents who wanted to restore views lost to nearby overgrown vegetation.

After eight public hearings, the committee, chaired by Larry Nokes, met with city staff and Laguna Beach City Atty. Phil Kohn to draft the revised ordinance. The committee and staff also met with officials from Rancho Palos Verdes and Tiburon, two cities that enacted similar view regulations.

Laguna Beach city staff and leaders have said the ordinance is meant to value and protect trees and views, sometimes a tough balancing act.

The changes are not intended to encourage or result in the clear-cutting of trees or other vegetation by overzealous application, according to the revised ordinance.

Boyd said a couple of people accused him of trying to denude Laguna Beach of its trees.

"Nothing could be further from the truth," Boyd said. "Our goal is to have neighbors work together to preserve their views."

Under the proposed new rules, if neighbors cannot reach agreement, a third-party mediator could be brought in to work toward a solution. The property owner alleging a view blockage would pay $500 for the mediator.

If mediation doesn't work, then the aggrieved landowner may make a view restoration claim, which would cost $630, the same fee residents currently pay to address hedge-height concerns.

The View Equity Committee would visit the site and hold a public hearing, where members would receive input and determine whether a significant view blockage had occurred, according to a city staff report.

The committee's decision could be appealed to the council by either party for $2,500, an increase from the current $650, the staff report said.

Residents and council members also expressed concern about the cost of adding city staff to handle an anticipated increase in view claims.

The city has proposed adding two full-time planners at $92,367 a year each but will consider other options, such as using contractors, Community Development Director John Montgomery wrote in an email.

City staff proposed paying a mediator $48,000 to handle 40 anticipated claims in the first year. The city also estimated paying an arborist $16,200 in the first year.

"We need to outsource," Mayor Elizabeth Pearson said. "Maybe we have an [administrative] person on staff to coordinate with the outsourced mediator and someone who works well with the public. Not all people need to be on staff. Why add people and benefits for one, two years when we know [the number of claims] will go down after the pent-up demand is met?"

Mayor Pro Tem Bob Whalen agreed that costs should be "more conservative" during the outset.

"The mediation process is the key to this," Whalen said. "If we need to spend money, we ought to spend money on the mediation end of it as opposed to the staff end of it."

City-maintained trees, which number 2,800, aren't subject to the complaint process under the amended ordinance, Montgomery said during the meeting. "At some point in the future we're going to need to address view claims against city-maintained trees," he added.

Councilwoman Toni Iseman said the ordinance should be more stringent when it comes to potential environmental harm.

"It's difficult to know what this ordinance will do," Iseman said in a phone interview. "Will it mean 200 complaints? [The city] is anticipating 40 per year, but the complaints could mean countless numbers of trees. I'm afraid the ordinance as written could be a problem. There could be people who can't afford to trim trees and cut trees down because it costs less."

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