Council to jump into district dispute

Barbara Diamond

A City Council decision to straddle the fence in a dispute between

the school district and its neighbors left unanswered the question of

whether the city can compel the district to submit the project for

design review.

The council unanimously endorsed the city's role as facilitator in

meetings between the two groups at the Jan. 4 meeting, claiming it

means to avoid a knock-down, drag-out legal battle about a

view-blocking fence around the high school baseball field. The

council's decision omitted any public discussion of jurisdiction,

which was discussed in closed session, and presumably influenced the

council decision.

"We were disappointed," high school neighbor Jamie Crawford said.

Neighbors have sought city action to force the district into the

review process that all other development, including city projects,

must undergo. The district contends it is exempt.

"Our attorneys have told us loud and clear that the city does not

have jurisdiction," said school board member El Hathaway.

The council declined to reveal the advice on the city's legal

position that they received in closed session from City Atty. Phil

Kohn. The council's reticence left the public wondering whether the

city cannot or will not require a review. And if they can, why not?

Nor was the position of the California Coastal Commission made

public, although the agenda stated a report would be made.

"The council decided not to release [Kohn's] opinion," City

Manager Ken Frank said. "It is my understanding that they are trying

not to get a legal resolution of the issue with the district, but a

cooperative issue where everybody works together. That's the way we

are going with it."

Project opponents believe the city is obligated to its citizens to

require the school district to submit the project to the city's Board

of Adjustment/Design Review Board and to the California Coastal

Commission.

At the heart of the dispute are the proposed 30-foot high,

combined fence and netting along St. Ann's Drive that blocks views

from homes and whether the school district can legally build it

without city approval.

The district takes the position that the reconfigured baseball

field and the 30-foot high fence are maintenance and repair, which

exempts it from city jurisdiction.

"Our attorney does not agree," Crawford said.

School Board member El Hathaway said about $120,000 has been spent

on alternations to the project to appease neighbors. Hathaway and

board member Bob Whalen are the board's liaison with the neighbors.

Alterations included the $35,000 replacement of galvanized chain

link fencing with vinyl, painting the poles green and sodding rather

than seeding the field, at a cost of $26,000.

"We felt it was better to have the field fully done, instantly

green," Hathaway said.

Crawford also said the district has promised to keep the field

unlighted and to paint the backs of the scoreboards to alleviate

glare.

"We would have traded everything they did for telescoping poles,"

Crawford said. "From day one, neighbors expressed horror at the

8-inch-diameter, 30-foot-tall poles. And the district has never

lowered them by a half inch."

Hathaway said some of the poles will be reduced in height, but not

until the district is sure there will be no litigation.

"We will play ball," Hathaway said.

A steering committee on behalf of the neighbors provided the

district with proposals from two companies that make telescoping

poles and retractable netting. The system could be raised when needed

to backstop balls from beaning pedestrians, motorists and residents

on St. Ann's Drive and lowered the rest of the time.

The cost is estimated at $250,000 to $300,000. Public opinion

might be able to do what the council apparently can't.

"The district needs to look closely at this if it ever expects to

float another bond," Laguna Beach Taxpayers Assn. President Martha

Lydick said.

Views from another 100 to 200 uphill homes are also affected,

Crawford said.

Council members Steve Dicterow and Jane Egly volunteered to

referee the dispute.

"We welcome Steve and Jane sitting down with us," Hathaway said.

The last time the council offered a facilitator was on the

Driftwood project, which neighbors also opposed. After about eight

months of meetings, little progress toward an amicable solution and

concessions by the developer rendered the project economically

unfeasible. A partnership representing Montage Resort and Spa snapped

up the property.

Frank said a facilitated meeting with two school board members and

neighbors more than likely will take place by the end of the month.

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