City officials will take another look at Laguna's View Preservation Ordinance.
The City Council voted unanimously on Tuesday to approve Mayor Kelly Boyd's proposal to form an ad hoc committee to review the ordinance. The committee will include six at-large members and a representative from the Design Review Board and Planning Commission, which will be appointed by Boyd, who will serve as chair.
"I want to put teeth in an ordinance that would work and would stand up in court," Boyd said.
The ordinance was first approved in 1996. An amendment to it that has been in effect since 2004 has been described as toothless, at best, and costly to boot — it costs $630 just to file a claim.
Only one of the 32 speakers from the audience in the packed council chambers spoke up for trees.
"I love trees," said David Magden, who deplored people moving into a neighborhood and immediately demanding that trees be cut.
Supporters of stronger view protection voiced concerns about recalcitrant neighbors who refused to trim view-blocking vegetation, lack of enforcement, and loss in property value due to the loss of a view.
Laguna Nursery owner and Beautification Council President Ruben Flores cautioned against a one-size-fits-all approach.
"There has to be a better way than saying all trees must be topped at 30 feet," Flores said. "Not every tree can be trimmed the same way."
He offered to work with the city group on solutions.
"I am grateful the mayor recognized the ordinance doesn't work," said South Laguna resident Chris Toy. "The city needs to fix this problem. This doesn't mean taking a chain saw to all trees."
Councilwoman Toni Iseman said people who cite the Palos Verdes view ordinance as an example to Laguna have to consider the differences between the two communities; Rancho Palos Verdes is a planned community that paid $300,000 to implement its ordinance.
Iseman said the best solution would be a Good Neighbor Policy, but it doesn't always work, so enforcement needs to be more effective.
"The city addresses views in every other way, except trees," Cathy Sassin said.
However, Arch Beach Heights resident Steve Caparaso said more than views are involved. The fire hazard from palm and eucalyptus trees growing along narrow streets is a real threat, he said
"If a fire occurred, it might be impossible to stop it," Caparaso said.
Retired Design Review Board member Ilsa Lenschow spoke in favor of giving the board more latitude in regulating landscaping when evaluating a redevelopment project.
"The board has been advised that a nexus between the proposed alteration and the existing vegetation has to be established in order to request the applicant to supply a landscape plan and/or revise the existing landscape," said Lenschow, who served on the board for 16 years. "I suggest you give the board the authority to evaluate existing and proposed landscaping for all DR applications, regardless of a nexus."
Lenschow also served with Councilman Steve Dicterow as city representatives on the Tree Review Equity Evaluation Board, created by the city ordinance and named so the acronym TREE could be used.
The ordinance approved in 1996 did not require owners of trees that blocked views to participate in the TREE board's review of a complaint by neighbors whose view was blocked and most didn't show. The 2004 amendment did not make appearance mandatory, but failure to participate in mediation can work against the tree owner in the event of legal action, according to Senior Planner Carolyn Martin.
Dicterow said times have changed.
"Nineteen years ago there was a strong element against the ordinance," Dicterow said. "Now it is important to move forward."
Dicterow would like the ordinance to be retroactive — no date specified. He said ways can be found around concerns about the legality of a retroactive component and that he wouldn't vote for an ordinance that doesn't include the component.
"If we want it to be retroactive, we will have to deal with the property rights of tree owners," said Councilman Bob Whalen. "We will hear from the city attorney on that."
Boyd is expected to report on the committee's progress in April and present a proposed ordinance by the end of the year.