When the Laguna Beach City Council adopted a controversial new view ordinance in 2014, many predicted that the city would be deluged with claims from residents seeking to restore sightlines of the ocean or surrounding hillsides lost to overgrown trees and other vegetation on a neighbor's property.
Statistics obtained recently from the city tell a different story.
Since the revised ordinance took effect in January 2015, the city has received 25 applications from residents seeking to restore their views, far fewer than anticipated. The legislation requires property owners to attempt a solution on their own, or with help from 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. Offending vegetation must be within 500 feet of the claimant's property line and at least 6 feet tall to be subject to a claim.
Community Development Director Greg Pfost listened to residents' fears of an onslaught of claims before the new ordinance became law.
"I heard, 'Be prepared to have a line out the door,'" Pfost said in an interview. "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]."
Under the current ordinance, a property owner alleging a blocked view 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 two other cases worked out issues by themselves. Other cases are pending.
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 restoration committee considers the evidence.
Since June, the committee has deliberated four claims.
The hearings have helped some neighbors reach a compromise. During a hearing in July, for example, 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 failed to agree, such as a recent hearing when a property owner seeking to restore a view rejected a neighbor's proposed planting plan in fear the trees would eventually obstruct sightlines.
There is also disagreement over who should bear the brunt of costs for filing claims and trimming.
Councilman Kelly Boyd 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."
The City Council this month is scheduled to consider adopting a separate ordinance related to city-maintained trees and vegetation that will outline a process for residents wishing to restore lost views due to trees planted on public property.