Discussion pushes view ordinance into further review

Laguna Beach residents on Tuesday night picked apart a proposal to alter the current city ordinance relating to views, rendering the process, in its 12th month, a work in progress.

The city's View Equity Committee, during a public meeting in council chambers, listened to 36 speakers touch on a variety of topics, including the date a resident can use when determining if he or she is entitled to a certain view and the number of locations a homeowner can claim as a primary view.

After two hours of public testimony and discussion, the committee determined the proposed ordinance is not ready to go to the City Council for review. The committee will revise it and return for another public meeting, committee Chairman Larry Nokes said.

The nine-member committee, which includes Planning Commissioner Ken Sadler, Design Review Board member Roger McErlane and landscape architect Bob Borthwick, will focus on four areas: the date a resident can use to establish a pre-existing view; how many viewing locations a resident can claim from the property (the proposal limits homeowners to one primary view); whether to include portions of the city's current hedge height ordinance, which the committee wanted to repeal, in a new view ordinance; and whether a tree can be removed without the owner's consent, Nokes said Wednesday.

The committee has spent nearly a year holding public meetings, talking with officials in Palos Verdes and Tiburon — in Marin County — about view ordinances in those areas, and working with city staff to craft a revised ordinance that provides clear guidelines on ways to preserve and restore views.

Some residents said the proposal lacked clarity, while others wondered whether certain homeowners would have any recourse to claim a view.

The latter issue concerns the date homeowners can use to determine whether they have a right to a pre-existing view, one from a "primary location on the property that is not significantly impaired by vegetation and that existed either on or after the date the owner acquired the property or Nov. 4, 2003, (the effective date of the current ordinance relating to view preservation), whichever is later," according to the proposed ordinance.

Residents who bought homes after 2003 wondered whether they would have a right to a pre-existing view.

"When you buy the property should have nothing to do with whether you can restore a view," Winsom Weeks said. "Because we're starting out, to have no say in the view ordinance because we bought our house a couple years ago is unfair."

Nokes clarified the proposal in a phone conversation Wednesday.

"If you bought a house in 2004, you can take the view back to 2004," Nokes said. "If you bought a house in 2013, you've got what you've got. The idea is that if you bought a house with a blocked view, you can't tell people to mow stuff down."

Committee member Sue Whitin was also concerned with the date issue, though she supported the process to create an amended ordinance.

"I'm concerned about the new people," Whitin said. "There's an attitude that those who are new in the city aren't deserving of what people who have lived here for years have. We have to be open-minded."

Sadler said one primary viewing location is too restrictive.

"This is a good starting point, but I hope it will be reevaluated," Sadler said. "The design review board should be given more authority to evaluate projects so landscape plans are integrated."

Borthwick, who has lived in Laguna since 1974, said at times his view has been compromised.

"Some of that is the nature of a community that has trees, and trees grow," Borthwick said. "We live in an organic community that has vegetation. There needs to be give and take."

The committee stopped short of repealing a hedge height ordinance it had proposed, after community members voiced support for the current regulation.

Hedges can exceed maximum allowable fence heights in the side and rear yards unless a resident files a claim against the property that contains the hedges and such hedges have been found by the city to create a safety hazard or obstruction to views or sunlight, according to the city's municipal code.

A hedge is any plant material, trees or shrubbery planted or grown in a dense, continuous line, so as to form a thicket or barrier, the proposed view ordinance said.

"The hedge ordinance is objective; the view ordinance is subjective," committee member Chris Toy said. "Personally, I would like to leave the hedge [ordinance] as separate [from the view ordinance]."

The audience clapped after Toy spoke.

Trees, such as eucalyptus, weren't intended to be part of the hedge height ordinance, but can be included in the mix if allowed to grow, Community Development Director John Montgomery said.

"Almost any tree, if you don't prune it, can grow into a bush-like structure and produce a hedge," Montgomery said.

McErlane, who moved to Laguna in 1967, acknowledged that the city didn't have as many trees then, but also not as many homes.

"[In 1967] views were views," McErlane said. "Now, there can be thousands of dollars difference between an ocean and non-ocean view."

The committee has spent hours speaking with officials from Palos Verdes and Tiburon on how view ordinances work in those cities.

"What we learned from Palos Verdes is that any ordinance has to be equitable, balanced, and [people] treated fairly," McErlane said. "I don't think the goal is to remove vegetation. The goal is to trim. Trees have a future in Laguna."

Nokes welcomed critiques at Tuesday's meeting and said he looks forward to revising the ordinance.

"Views we have in Laguna are a fabulous natural resource, and everyone recognizes that," he said.

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