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Your Trees, My Views, Our Process
November 2008 | By Mark Whitehead

Del Mar's beauty derives from its ocean vistas, the charm of its trees and varied vegetation, and the quality and limited scale of its built environment. But views, vegetation, and house construction are sometimes in conflict. Views from established homes enjoy protection by our land use ordinances. But 10 years ago we had a famous case where a property owner seeking to build a view-blocking house planted vegetation to block the neighbor's view in an attempt to, subsequently, protect his plans from criticism of view blockage.  Fortunately this maneuver was unsuccessful and resulted in the city's Trees & Views ordinance.

The Trees & Views ordinance established a process whereby homeowners whose views are threatened by a neighbor's vegetation can obtain relief, first by mediation, but if all negotiations fail, by a hearing before the Planning Commission. A trees and views decision can be appealed by one of the conflicting parties to the city council. The council can agree to rehear the case, but usually only does so if there was a procedural error in the lower body's decision-making process. This usually correlates with split votes of the commissioners. The Planning Commission has only adjudicated a few cases over the past 10 years; most were resolved early on, neighbor to neighbor.

There is a current case the community should follow closely. In 1995 a home was built on oceanfront. Neighbor opposition to the planned home's potential view blockage was resolved by the Design Review Board's requiring a set-back of one wall of the home and a limitation to the height of vegetation between the parties in conflict. Nevertheless, despite this required limitation on vegetation height as a condition for plan approval, the vegetation was allowed to grow, blocking the view that had been adjudicated. Appeals to the owner to trim the vegetation were ignored. The house was sold and the new owners were similarly non-responsive, leading the neighbors to seek restoration via the Trees & Views ordinance. The Planning Commission voted unanimously that the view blockage was unreasonable in light of the violation of the agreement attending the earlier DRB approval, i.e., that the vegetation should be kept trimmed.

The vegetation owners have appealed the Commission's decision to the city council, and, despite the unanimity of the lower body's decision, two council members have agreed to re-hear the case. It is relevant to point out that the vegetation-owners, Pickens, who claim privacy concerns, are notable for spending vast sums to promote causes on the national political level. By agreeing to hear this contentious case the city council appears to be proceeding carefully. The council's ultimate decision has potential to either support or undermine the authority and effectiveness of the Planning Commission and, by extension, the other volunteer citizen committees that are so vital to the quality of life in Del Mar. Stay tuned. With regard to community values and private property druthers, this is an acid test case par excellence!

Mark Whitehead is a former mayor of Del Mar.



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