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Council not cowed by goat herd critics

City officials want to smoke out areas of dry vegetation that would provide fuel for a fire and get rid of it.

A council majority said Tuesday even native plants may have to be cleared if they pose a threat to life or property — and asked residents to submit photographs of problem areas to the city.

The photographs will be used to make the city’s case to maintain and even add to fuel breaks to which other agencies and groups are opposed, some for ecological reasons.

“Human life and property is more important than plants,” Councilman Kelly Boyd said. “We need to look at areas people have denied us [clearing] and have the fire department look at them.

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“We need to stand up to the plate. People who are saying no are jeopardizing others.”

City Manager Ken Frank summed up Tuesday’s discussion as a directive to city staff continue to clear vegetation everywhere the city traditionally clears and to be more assertive where the city has not gone before.

Plants vs. people

The discussion was prompted by comments made during the public communications period of the council meeting by two residents concerned that city policies appear to give a higher priority to plant life than human life.

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Frank explained the city and private property owners were reamed in the past for intruding into sensitive habitat as part of the city-wide fuel modification program — the clearing of a defensible swathe of land between wild vegetation and urban development.

“In 2005, Kris Head of the Laguna Beach Fire Department made a neighborhood presentation regarding the need for fuel modification,” South Laguna resident Curt Bartsch said. “The Athens Group, as a good neighbor, was more than willing to respond by clearing the lower hillside behind our property in order to comply with the fire department recommendations.

“As has been well documented by now, Athens Group was severely reprimanded by local self interests who raised environmental issues.”

S. Laguna of ‘special concern’

Bartsch said he has received no written response to his subsequent e-mailed appeals for an assessment of the danger posed by areas behind South Laguna properties, although Fire Chief Mike Macey has been quoted about the need for defensible space, and expressed special concern about South Laguna.

Moreover, there are other pockets for potential disaster, residents pointed out.

Park Avenue resident Dan McFarland asked the council to order the removal of dried brush across the street from his home.

“I go past it every day,” Frank said. “It is a steep slope to Mystic Hills and each spring we clear out flammable fuel [vegetation], but he is talking about native vegetation. It’s virtually dead, but we don’t remove native vegetation without a biological study.”

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Issues with fire breaks

Meantime, according to Frank, the city is battling California Coastal Commission and state Fish and Game efforts to reduce the fuel breaks already done and the county wants to reduce the size of the fire road between Top of the World and Arch Beach Heights.

Frank also is at odds with some environmentalists who object to the use of goats to clear hillside defensible space, because the critters have indiscriminate palates and chomp on everything, including native plants.

Bartsch, who described himself as a card-carrying Sierra Club member, offered a couple of options for his neighborhood.

“A — we can sit on our hands and wait for a 1993-type fire storm and lament after the fact that we did not take steps to stop destruction or B — the fire department can meet with [groups] and come up with a solution that won’t destroy the crown beard, whatever that is,” Bartsch said, referring to one of the protected plant species.

Goats to be laid off

As for the goats, they will soon be gone — they have eaten themselves out of a job, at least temporarily.

“The fuel break around the perimeter was done so well, we are pulling the goats off,” Frank said. “There is nothing for them to eat.”

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Frank said he would be happy to have the Park Avenue dead native brush cleared as a safety precaution, but cautioned that such an action could generate complaints.

“We are going to get a firestorm of people here that are concerned about [the city] doing nothing about a fuel break,” Councilwoman Elizabeth Schneider said. “We want residents to take pictures and bring them to us and we’ll go around to government agencies and show them. Let them take the responsibility.”

Many unconcerned about fire

The community might not be as concerned about fire danger as the council.

In a Friday memo to the council, Frank reported the fire department had mailed almost 1,900 letters to owners of property adjacent to undeveloped open space, encouraging the property owners to request a visit from department personnel to determine how best to protect their homes.

As of July 13, only 15 homeowners had responded to the letters mailed in May.

A series of neighborhood meetings presented by the department also failed to engage the hoped-for response — attendance was poor.

Asked about South Laguna areas that were exempted from the program, Frank said staff was instructed to stay away from “high habitat” areas — where plants and animals are thriving.

“We have to revisit that,” said Councilwoman Cheryl Kinsman, a Three Arch Bay resident.

Kinsman was also concerned about the cancellation of or inability to get fire insurance and urged residents to inform the council if that happens.

“I think everyone would agree that we protect people and homes before a bush,” Mayor Pro Tem Jane Egly said. “But we need to be careful about the issue of taking everything down.”

Mayor Toni Iseman said the city shouldn’t have to get permission from anyone before taking out dead trees, but claimed native plants resist fire better than ‘invasives,’” referring to nonnative plants.

Iseman also asked Frank to put the city’s name on a list for the services of California Conservation Corps and county hand crews, a method of fuel eradication preferred by environmentalists.


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