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Laguna Niguel Planners Reject Protection Law for Ridgelines : Environment: A commissioner says the city already has enough preservation ordinances. The measure had been intended as a compromise.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A city-backed hillside protection ordinance, touted as an alternative to a tougher plan proposed by a residents’ group, has been unanimously rejected by the city Planning Commission.

The commission voted Wednesday, 5-0, not to endorse the ordinance, which had been the focus of four public hearings and had been recommended for approval by city staff members.

Commissioner Robert Healey said his panel concluded that there are already enough city regulations to govern ridgeline development.

The rejection surprised some residents who had expected the city to endorse the plan, which a consultant had been hired almost a year ago to create.

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“I am in total shock,” said Connie Axen, a member of the city’s environmental review board. “It just doesn’t make sense to me.”

The proposal had been considered a less restrictive alternative to a citizen-backed initiative that would have governed hillside development while barring construction within 300 feet of ridge tops.

Supporters of the initiative submitted more 4,000 signatures to force the city either to adopt the measure as law or put it before voters.

The City Council refused to do either, after hearing the legal advice that the city would almost certainly be sued by landowners affected. The city is expected to ask the courts to determine whether the initiative is constitutional.

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All five council members have been targeted for recall over the issue.

Axen said she did not support the initiative and had been assured by city officials that city’s own plan would protect the hillsides.

“And then last night,” she said Thursday, “for all five planning commissioners to totally vote no on it just put me in shock.”

Paul Willems, a proponent of the ridgeline initiative, said that he had been “totally surprised” by the commission’s rejection and that he will call for the resignation of some commissioners.

“The reason we became incorporated is because we want control of land use,” Willems said. “The people want to have it. Whether or not the Planning Commission wants to have it is immaterial.”

City Manager Tim Casey, however, said the panel’s action at least proves that it will not “rubber-stamp everything that comes out of staff.”

Community Development Director Robert P. Lenard said the ordinance would have provided many specific requirements for hillside development, including a provision that grading would follow the natural slope of the land.

Councilman Paul M. Christiansen said that “from what I’ve heard in the community, the developers are just delighted” by the planners’ vote.

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The proposed ordinance will come before the City Council within the next month, said Lenard, who did not know whether a public hearing will be held.

But Axen said she doubts that the ordinance will now be approved by the council.

“I just think it’s a dead and a moot issue, now that the planning commissioners have turned it down,” she said. “I don’t know now where we go from here.”


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