Landscape committee

Ann Christoph, Greg Vail, Belinda Ann Deines, Bob Borthwick, Rob Zur Schmiede and Anne Johnson (not pictured) make up the Landscape and Scenic Highways Element Committee, which seeks to include issues such as streetscape, heritage trees and native plants into the city's general plan. (Don Leach / Coastline Pilot / October 22, 2013)

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Landscape architects and Laguna Beach planning commissioners are working to give the city's landscape-related policies teeth.

The Landscape and Scenic Highways Element Committee's goal is to consolidate two existing documents that focus on landscape and scenic highways into one unified section of the city's general plan.

"This element [document] seeks to create a long-term comprehensive plan that highlights the significance of our picturesque natural setting and unique artistic heritage," reads a description on the city's website.

The group includes lead consultant Greg Vail, a former Laguna Beach planning commissioner, current commission Chairman Robert Zur Schmiede, Commissioner Anne Johnson, landscape architects Ann Christoph and Robert Borthwick, and Assistant City Planner Belinda Ann Deines.

The committee held an open house Oct. 3 to introduce the project and a public workshop Tuesday to gain input.

Residents at Tuesday's meeting touched on the importance of fire safety, the unintended consequences of development, and benefits of trees.

Councilwoman Toni Iseman spoke about the effects of building large houses on small lots.

"You excavate and take out hundreds of cubic yards of dirt, which is a problem for air quality," she said, alluding to the number of truck trips required to transport the dirt. "We're bending over backward when we should say no. From the standpoint of the global environment, damaging it is to encourage excavation."

Ruben Flores, owner of Laguna Nursery, favors benefits for residents planting drought-tolerant plants.

"What if we were able to give someone a break on their permit filings if they had drought-tolerant plants?" Flores said.

One question committee members face in crafting a plan is how to deal with natural habitat areas that abut urban sections, such as residential neighborhoods.

Resident Johanna Felder sees the interplay first-hand from her yard.

Felder said goats near her home have eaten all the grass, which worries her when storms come. The city has used goats since the early 1990s to eat vegetation as a fire safety measure.

"Supposedly there's a biologist going before and after [the goats] to follow and move them," Felder said. "It's not happening. They're eating nothing. They give them hay and [goats] stay for a week. The problem is that when rains come there's no vegetation on the hillside. If we're going to have goats, we need to do this wisely and restore hillsides with native vegetation."

The committee will have several ideas to consider as it moves forward.

Members will review testimony from Tuesday's workshop and the Oct. 3 forum in the coming months and hope to submit a draft element to the Planning Commission in the first part of next year, Vail said. The draft would then go to the City Council.

Experts in several fields — geology, ecology, arts and history — provided insight into Laguna's past during the Oct. 3 open house.

Artists threaded their beliefs about nature through paintings of early Laguna, said Eric Jessen, former chairman of the city's landscape advisory committee who has researched the town's plein air artists.

"They cared not just to paint beautiful pictures, but to experience and express their beliefs about the spirituality of nature," he said during the meeting.

"Painters appreciated how the cottages and plantings visually enriched the coastal landscape."

In 1975, the scenic highways document was created to help establish Laguna Canyon Road and Coast Highway as official scenic highways, according to the city.

"The major thrust of the element is to explore methods which will develop the interface between the roadway and the environment," the document states. "A scenic highway doesn't need to be a new road. As a matter of fact, probably the most important reason for not building new rights-of-way is due to aesthetics. New roads tend to be dull because they cut across the grain of the very landscape they are intended to view. Landscapes develop naturally and to put a new road through one would give an artificial perspective."

Laguna leaders adopted the document to spur landscape design programs and provide private property owners, city employees and residents with maintenance guidelines, the city's website said.

In 1995, the city created the landscape and scenic resources document.

It provides guidance for preservation and enhancement of the city's landscaping and scenic streets and includes sections on pruning and maintenance, recommended plants for certain areas, urban design and neighborhood landscapes, according to the city.

Biologist Trish Smith, who has lived in Laguna for 16 years, keyed in on open space when she addressed the committee.

"The challenge and responsibility is to protect these lands to maintain the biological diversity," said Smith, who recommended strategies for using native plants for fire protection in Aliso and Wood Canyons Wilderness Park. "The biggest concern for open spaces is invasion of non-native plants, which can choke out the natural habitat."

Community members may submit comments on an online survey at the city's website, http://www.lagunabeachcity.net/LSHE,.