The City Council voted 2-1 Tuesday night to postpone action on a controversial ridgeline protection ordinance that was backed by more than 4,000 voters during a recent petition drive.
After an emotional meeting attended by nearly 100 angry residents, the council decided to hold a public hearing within 30 days to decide whether it should approve the ordinance or put it on the ballot.
The council took its action after weeks of hostility from residents. Opponents of the initiative have threatened to sue the city if the ordinance is approved, and proponents have threatened to mount a recall against city officials if the measure is not put before the voters.
The heated meeting, which drew nearly 100 residents, was the latest in a series of hearings about an initiative intended to protect undeveloped ridgelines throughout the city. The proposal, at first widely welcomed by residents, later drew the wrath of property owners when they discovered they might not be able to build on their lots.
"I don't want to be forced into litigation against my new city. It's not right," said resident Nancy Christensen, who opposes the measure. She said it would represent "the tyranny of the majority" infringing upon the rights of a minority of people who have purchased undeveloped property.
Richard McCracken, an attorney for the committee that favors the ordinance, told the council that the measure is intended to protect ridgeline properties whose sole value is scenic, a "value that is vested in the rights of the citizens of Laguna Niguel."
The dispute has since turned bitter, sparking reported death threats against the chairman of the committee formed to promote the ordinance.
"You wouldn't believe these people are that kind of quality," Richard Taylor, chairman of the Laguna Niguel Ridgeline Protection and Preservation Committee said before the meeting. "All I want to do is protect a few ridgelines that are left. But I guess that's what happens when you stick your head up. Somebody wants to lop it off."
Although state law requires a city to endorse an ordinance or place it before the voters once the petition signatures have been verified, city officials agreed the proposal would put the city at tremendous legal risk by rendering large chunks of land and individually owned lots unbuildable. City staff recommended that the council postpone action at least until another public hearing can be held.
Voting to postpone the decision were council members Thomas W. Wilson and Larry A. Porter; Councilman Paul M. Christiansen cast the nay vote. Both Mayor Patricia C. Bates, who owns a lot in Monarch Point, and Councilman James F. Krembas, whose wife works in real estate, abstained.
City Atty. Terry Dixon, who submitted a 22-page memo to the council, said the city is justified under the circumstances in withholding the initiative from the ballot. Approval of the ordinance would almost certainly solicit lawsuits from property owners whose land would be affected, Dixon said.
"You just can't wipe out somebody's property by a zoning restriction," Dixon said. "No matter how you look at it, this thing has a great potential for litigation."
Should proponents file a lawsuit to force the council to approve the initiative themselves or place it on the ballot, city officials say it will give them an opportunity to argue that the measure is unconstitutional.
"It's not our desire to pick a fight and force the issue into court," City Manager Timothy J. Casey said, "although as a practical matter, we're not sure there's any door that doesn't lead to litigation."
After weeks of analyzing the proposed ordinance, the city staff concluded that at least 72 individually owned lots and two other pieces of land consisting of 83 acres of hilltop property would be rendered undevelopable if the ordinance is approved. The owner of one of larger parcels, a 22-acre parcel which borders South Laguna and is commonly known as the Binion property, has submitted a tentative tract map for 32 homes, city planners say.
If only the 72 lots are rendered undevelopable and the city is ordered to pay for the property, the financial risk to the city could be $30 million to $70 million, Casey said. The 72 lots include property in Bear Brand Ranch and Monarch Point, but city officials say any ridgeline property within view of a "scenic highway," such as Crown Valley Parkway or Coast Highway, could be affected if the ordinance is passed.
The proposal calls for a 300-foot setback on both sides of ridgelines and would require that grading within 500 feet of hilltops be consistent with the slope of the land.