Laguna Beach Spends $328,000+ to Harass Seniors for Seven Years

City Attorney Out of Control

Guest Article by David Pahnos

Pahnos and Stephens are a married gay couple who have lived in Laguna Beach for over 30 years. They live in an old cottage, situated on a water course, on a steep slope, in a high-risk landslide/mudslide area of South Laguna. The previous owners of the property and neighbors have stabilized the soil using trees and shrubs since the 1920s. Most of the trees are now well over 80 years old. They and their neighbors have had repeated mudslides, sink holes, and water spouts. Water spouts even occur on the city street.

New upslope neighbors (Mr. and Mrs. Phelps) demanded, from the day they moved in, (2004) that Pahnos & Stephens trim trees to enhance their ocean view, Pahnos & Stephens did so multiple times to accommodate them, until their demands threatened the health of the trees and thus the soil stability. Since 2004 Pahnos & Stephens have spent close to $30,000 on tree trimming.

The Administrative Process

  • The Phelpses filed a “hedge height claim,” in 2010 demanding a panoramic ocean view, although Pahnos & Stephens had no hedges in the Phelpses view.
  • A city hearing officer ordered Pahnos & Stephens to perform a little more modest trimming. Pahnos & Stephens complied. Their property was inspected and found to be in compliance.
  • The Phelpses appealed the decision to the Design Review Board.
    1. Design Review Boards have no jurisdiction, under state law, to hear ordinance enforcement cases. Pahnos & Stephens pointed this out to the city and pointed out that they did not have any hedges blocking the Phelpses view.
    2. While the claim was in process, Council amended the Hedge Height Ordinance to define all trees as hedges, since the city’s tree ordinance had no enforcement provisions. They also removed the Design Review Board from the process.
    3. Also, while the “claim” was in process, the Department of Community Development, as policy, declared that claimants do not have to address safety issues under the ordinance, and that the city would not take safety issues into account. Pahnos & Stephens asserted that their safety and that of their downslope neighbors was paramount and presented the Department with a soils safety engineering report done for their property by a nationally known expert. The Department said that, under its new policy, the report was irrelevant. Thus, the city amended the law and policy, tailoring them to the Phelpses claim against Pahnos & Stephens, while the claim was in process.
    4. The DRB held a hearing on the claim one week after the changes in the ordinance took effect, without acknowledging they had been removed from the process, but retroactively applying the new definition of “hedge” and new policy on safety to Pahnos & Stephens property, ordering the topping and removal of trees. [Topping is illegal under state law: Ca Gov Code Section 53067(a)(4)] None of the Pahnos/Stephens landslide/mudslide exhibits/photos or engineer report were deemed admissible under the new policy.
    5. At the DRB hearing (video recorded) the Phelpses presented a landscaping plan for the Pahnos & Stephens property. The DRB barred Pahnos & Stephens from speaking at the hearing, reasoning that the Phelpses were permit applicants, even though it was not their property. (The Phelpses were applying for a permit to landscape property that they did not own, to their specifications, and making Pahnos & Stephens pay for it.)
    6. Pahnos & Stephens complained to the City Manager that the DRB had acted improperly in several ways. The City Manager scheduled a de novo appeal to the City Council. He then issued a staff recommendation that the Council uphold the DRB decision, which obviated the hearing as de novo. The staff report made no mention of the legality or morality of the new policy and definition, or the extra-jurisdictional, post-removal reach of the DRB.
  •  The City Council held an appeal hearing, (video recorded) giving Pahnos five minutes to speak and Mr. and Mrs. Phelps each five minutes to speak.  Council refused to address the safety issue, the topping issue, or that the Phelpses were not asking for view restoration, but view creation, and voted 3 to 2 to uphold the DRB decision.
    1. Pahnos & Stephens subsequently received a “Final Determination” letter from the Zoning Administrator, detailing the original hearing officers decision. They were visited twice by ordinance enforcement officers who declared the property to be in compliance with the ordinance both times.
    2. A month later, Pahnos & Stephens received a second “Final Determination” letter that stated they must comply with the DRB decision.
    3. An ordinance enforcement officer then issued citations
  • Pahnos & Stephens appealed to a state certified hearing officer who dismissed the citations, ruling that the DRB had acted improperly and had no jurisdiction to hear an ordinance enforcement case.
  • Laguna Beach Municipal Code 1.15.110 (a) states that “The decision of the hearing officer shall be final.” This is a state mandated section of the code for General Law cities, using state certified hearing officers, so that cities cannot harass defendants with repeated citations.

 Criminal Court

  • The city then filed criminal charges against Pahnos & Stephens for disobeying the City Council, which upheld the DRB decision that had been ruled to be illegal, even though the case had received a final ruling. The criminal prosecution was based on the citations that had already been ruled to be invalid. The city ignored its own municipal code, asked the Court for $1,000 per day fines for Pahnos & Stephens each, retroactive to the city council hearing, and six months in jail for both.
  • A Superior Court Judge dismissed the city’s case, ruling that the citations were “totally invalid.” The judge also stated that not all trees are hedges and that she could give many more reasons for dismissal, but invalid citations were sufficient.
  • Within two weeks the city filed the same charges again, based on the same DRB/Council ruling and the same invalid citations, now having been invalidated by the state hearing officer and Superior Court. The City began judge shopping, an unethical practice not condoned by the Court.
  • The charges languished for four years, while complaints against the city were being heard in civil court, becoming the oldest case on the criminal court’s docket. The city asked the Court again for $1,000 per day fines for Pahnos & Stephens each, retroactive to the city council hearing and six months in jail for both. (Millions of dollars by this time)
  • During the civil procedures, the city attorney maintained that there is no evidence that Pahnos & Stephens live in a landslide/mudslide area, even though they and their neighbors have had multiple landslide/mudslides. The city withheld voluminous evidence of landslide risk in its possession during the discovery process, and presented a city street map, saying that the map was all it possessed. A city official also admitted in a sworn deposition to destroying internal emails during litigation before they could be subpoenaed, and the Director of Community Development, in a email to the Phelpses and in a sworn deposition, said that the city filed criminal charges in order to prevent Pahnos & Stephens from using the administrative process again to invalidate new citations.
  • The civil procedures ended in a muddled ruling without a jury trial, which Stephens and Pahnos had asked for: nevertheless, the Court ruled that Pahnos/Stephens could “keep what they had” when the Hedge Height Ordinance was passed, which is considerably more than they currently have.

City Attorney Continues With Criminal Charges

  • The city attorney, ignoring the civil decision, continued with the criminal charges. By this time, Pahnos & Stephens had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars fighting for their basic rights and safety against the improper and unethical actions by the city and the city attorney. The Court suggested a civil agreement to end it. Deputy City Attorney Noam Duzman, told Pahnos and his lawyer that no matter how many times the charges were dismissed that the city would keep filing them and make Pahnos & Stephens spend money to defend themselves. Deputy City Attorney, Ajit Thind had previously told Pahnos & Stephens attorney that they, “must learn to obey.” Among the charges, Pahnos & and Stephens were prosecuted for refusing to trim trees that were on another neighbor’s property, which they did not own, even though Pahnos/Stephens told the enforcement officer that they did not own the trees – the DRB had ordered it, and ownership fell on deaf ears.
  • Pahnos & Stephens had never had a dispute with neighbors or the city before in their lives. Neither of them have ever before been charged with a misdemeanor or even an infraction; yet, on the face of it, the city was maliciously pursuing these gay senior citizens. Several neighbors had written to the city, attesting to the fact that Pahnos & Stephens were good neighbors, that there is, indeed, a mudslide problem on the north side of 10th Avenue, and that the Phelpses had lied about the trees and vegetation. These neighbors also spoke out at city hearings, and were prepared to testify in court. The neighbors were ignored.

Laguna Beach is a Landslide/Liquefaction Area

During the city’s administrative process, through the policy decision, city officials refused to acknowledged, admit, or discuss evidence of a risk to public safety occurring as a result of its actions. This is at best malfeasance, since the health, safety, and welfare of residents is the highest priority of every city under California and Federal law.  The California Geological Survey has designated the entire city as a landslide/liquefaction area. The city has gotten money from FEMA. In 2005, over 20 homes fell down a hill in Bluebird Canyon. Residents have lost their lives in mudslides in Laguna Canyon. The city’s only response throughout is that it does not believe that trees hold soil. Science denial is not a defense for violating state and federal environmental laws or the withholding of official documents. The Safety Element of the City’s General Plan, (page 69) a mandatory section, requires the Department of Community Development to perform a detailed geological hazard survey of the entire city by 1998 and requires the City Council to monitor the progress. It was never done.

The Civil Agreement

Pahnos & Stephens decided to enter into a civil agreement with the city believing it would stop the city attorney from filing the same dismissed charges over and over again, and the judge had assured them of that. Deputy City Attorney, Noam Duzman, drew up an elaborate agreement in collaboration with the Phelpses, using their arborist. The Phelpses arborist, who the city paid for, informed Duzman, in front of two witnesses, that it was illegal in California to top healthy trees, even though that’s what the Phelpses want. The court had ruled twice that the Phelpses could not be a party to either the criminal or civil proceedings and that they had no legal claim against Pahnos & Stephens because they had suffered no harm. Duzman, however, asserted that the civil agreement was for the purpose of satisfying the Phelpses, who he repeatedly referred to in multiple meetings as his “clients.” He also asserted multiple times, in writing, that he would file criminal charges again, until the Phelpses interpretation of the agreement was satisfied. Conversely, Duzman never asserted that there was a public interest served by this agreement, or by prosecuting Pahnos & Stephens, but he asserted repeatedly, in front of multiple witnesses, that he was serving the Phelpses. Unfortunately, he was using the prosecution powers of the city to do it, and the taxpayers were paying his fees for the Phelpses sole benefit. The agreement, in the end, did not resemble any Laguna Beach ordinance.

Fair and Equal Treatment

The ethics section of the Laguna Beach Municipal Code:

“Section 2.14.040 Fair and equal treatment.

Preferential consideration of the request or petition of any individual citizen or group of citizens shall not be given. No person shall receive special advantages beyond that which are available to any other citizen. (Ord. 738 § 1, 1973).”

Nevertheless, Pahnos & Stephens wanted to end the dispute, and signed a civil agreement.

  • The Phelpses immediately began to interpret the civil agreement in ways to get more trimming. Their interpretation, via Duzman, became the official city interpretation – whatever the Phelpses wanted. Even two years after the agreement was signed, Duzman continues to meet with the Phelpses.
  • Under the agreement, Pahnos & Stephens are required to trim epicormic branches on their stone pine tree (new branches below the crown that sprout from the trunk.) The Phelpses complained that there was epicormic growth. Pahnos and his attorney met with Duzman and Tony Farr, enforcement officer, who said that he had seen it. Pahnos explained to them that stone pine trees do not have epicormic growth, as most species of pine trees do not. Pahnos & his attorney suggested that Duzman spend 10 minutes on the Internet to read about pine trees.
  • Several months later, Duzman demanded that an arborist climb the tree and measure all the branches to certify that there were none under five inches in diameter (epicormic branches). Pahnos & Stephens paid a certified arborist, one used by the city for its trees, to spend two days in the tree measuring branches, and to write a report to the city. The report stated that he measured all the branches, none were smaller than five inches in diameter, and that stone pine trees don’t have epicormic branches. It cost Pahnos & Stephens $3,000.00 for this useless exercise.
  • Duzman continued to send demanding letters about various trees and shrubs, continued to demand that trees be topped so severely as to kill them, (against state law) and continued to demand that trees be trimmed to meet the Phelpses interpretations down to the inch. Pahnos & Stephens stopped responding to Duzman’s demands and threats of prosecution.
  • Duzman notified Pahnos & Stephens that they are to be arraigned again on August 18, 2017 in criminal court for violating the municipal code, without any mention of which ordinance and without the issuance of a citation, knowing full well that previous citations were invalid.

The city and its attorney have been improperly, unethically, and illegally harassing Pahnos & Stephens for a full seven years. Members of City Council must put a stop to this shameful travesty and investigate how this could have happened; otherwise, it would appear that Council members have colluded in this harassment of senior citizens who happen to be gay and do not receive the same political favoritism in the city as their next door neighbor.

* The opinions, representations and statements made within this guest article are those of the author and not of the as a whole. Any copyright remains with the author and any liability with regard to infringement of intellectual property rights remain with them. accepts no liability for any errors, omissions or representations.

Comparison Shows An Outdated Historical Ordinance

In a recent ‘Letter To The Editor’ submission in the LB Indy Newspaper, local resident Doug Cortez addresses problems with one historical ordinance coming before Planning Commission this month.

He states, “Over the years many Lagunans have been critical of Laguna’s historical preservation program. On Oct. 18 the Planning Commission will try again to draft a revised ordinance. But there seems to be confusion and a lack of clear direction.

I called the historical preservation planners in Santa Barbara, Palm Springs, Pasadena, Fullerton and Orange. It seems like we are living a bubble built on outdated ideas and dysfunctional regulations.”

Check out his full letter on the Laguna Beach Indy Newspaper website here

Guest Article – To Build or Not To Build The Second Pool… That Is The Question ‎

With the success of the Laguna Beach High School girls’ polo team internationally there is now word on the street that Laguna must have an Olympic size stadium pool for more practice and support for further successes with our water polo teams. There were many who spoke out against this new pool as way too big and way too expensive. However he new second pool advocates continued to press on with attempts to bring the large pool plan to the City Council.

At this time it has been noted that the Olympic size would be Laguna’s second public pool but now has been reduced in size in hopes that it will now be a plan more acceptable to the Taxpayers who will pay for this luxury. Please keep in mind that all of this remains in the talking stages to some degree. With a City of only some 23,000 in population the need for a second pool seems extravagant. Many athletes in training for swimming in Olympic events whether in lap competition or diving or polo had to travel to areas that had Aquatic Centers with large facilities for training. These Aquatic Centers are located in Laguna Niguel and San Clemente and other nearby cities. Much larger cities with large open land space for development and a much broader property tax base to pay for these Aquatic Centers made it very easy to build such Centers. These Centers as well as others are very close to Laguna Beach and could be used for all swimming competition practices.

This is a much fairer, reasonable, and practical approach to serve the needs for these athletes and not create a significant burden from our much smaller tax base. Our current local pool is part of the LBSD with total costs carried by the School District and then with the School District’s total costs paid in full by the Taxpayers. Our current pool accommodates both students and the public. The new second pool advocates have mentioned in presenting their case, the over crowding of pool usage and thus the need for this second pool. There are those citizens who have observed pool usage during pool hours and have noticed how few people are actually there at any one time and therefore creating less demand for a second community pool. My neighbor, who is a senior and uses the pool often, mentioned that there has never been any overcrowding and plenty of room for free swimming or doing laps.

With emails from various departments of the City the information that a geological survey had been completed at Lang Park in South Laguna. There were no other areas in Laguna Beach that were being consider for a second pool location. This survey was done in June of this year in consideration for a second pool location. To my knowledge there was no information given to the public as to any exploration for a second pool location at Lang Park. It did take an email to the City to get current and accurate information. At this time it is unknown if the second City pool is actually a done deal or remains yet in the planning stages. Many Citizens in South Laguna are in opposition to any pool being developed at Lang Park mainly due to the significant increase in traffic and parking needs that will impact this quiet neighborhood. Instead of a second pool most Citizens of South Laguna have needed side walks, more adequate beach patrols, and public bathrooms, along with better maintenance of beaches in the South end of town. A second pool at Lang Park would only add to the burden many of these Citizens must deal with on a daily basis.

To my knowledge the building of a second swim pool in our town has never been a priority until the recent victories won by the high school girls’ polo team. Second pool advocates are now stepping up to encourage the City to move forward with planning. To date there have been no discussion as to cost to build the pool and what can be expected on costs to maintain this facility. How will parking be controlled and how much actual green belt will be left for play areas for children and families? Who will be allowed to use this second pool? Additionally, with the Village Entrance yet to be completed with a budget already set aside at $7.1 million Taxpayer dollars, and the talk of under grounding telephone poles at a huge estimated cost, plus even a greater demand to accommodate our Homeless population, and the added demands on our local Police Department, plus the liability for our unfunded pensions, it seems very clear that the demand for a second multi million dollar pool on a population of only 23,000 is extreme.

We Taxpayers are most willing to accommodate the needs and costs for maintaining our community but are unwilling to be overburdened with unnecessary and wasteful costs. Our government must care for the daily needs of our Citizens because it is us, the Taxpayers, who will be picking up the tab. Tourism actually puts little money into the City coffers and taxes paid from purchases in our commercial district, not much of those taxes actually end up as part of our General Fund. The costs to run our City remains
nearly solely on the backs of Property Owners. Further more, any recommendations for any large expenditure projects paid for by Taxpayers must be approved by a ballot vote and open discussion before any consultants are hired and any actual planning is started.
The true need for a second pool remains totally unnecessary and most unpractical. The group who advocates for the second pool is small but determined. Taxpayers in opposition to a new second multi million dollar pool must step forward to be heard and resist this second pool movement which, if approved, will become yet an additional tax burden.

Jim Gothard
Laguna Beach

* Editor’s Note: LagunaBeachCHAT welcomes guest articles on topics of general interest, from respected sources. If a guest article is accepted as relevant and topical, we commit to making no changes (other than spelling and small technical corrections) and will publish the article in its entirety.

Guest Op-Ed – Motorcycle Noise Within Laguna City Limits

Laguna Beach Mayor Toni Iseman addressed a group of Wesley District residents on the night of September 20. She shared a proposal regarding restrictions on motorcycle noise on PCH. She then advised us the problem would be enforcement because, “I happen to know that our police officers don’t like pulling over motorcycles because they would rather pull over little old school teachers, (as she gestured to herself), in their cars because that is easier.”

There were three retired police officers in the room. I was one of them. I spontaneously replied, “That’s not true.” Behind me one of the other police officers said the same. Mayor Iseman put her hand up towards us in a gesture to stop, looked elsewhere in the room and continued. None of us persisted. It seemed not the place. Perhaps this is.

The Mayor’s comment came up in our neighborhood the next day. Several residents acknowledged that she was once a school teacher and is probably why she referred to herself? And that perhaps she once received a ticket? I don’t know.

What I do know is that first responders, police officers and fire fighters, do not have the time or luxury to address our critics. Especially another public servant. It goes against our Law Enforcement Code of Ethics. It can also be construed as under color of authority if there is any semblance that we are speaking as a public officer. Minimally it is considered unethical and unprofessional. We would be disciplined.

That night the Ms. Iseman began her talk by reminding all of us that as mayor she has the “Bully Pulpit” and intends to use it to speak on our behalf. Mayor, you used your platform to speak flippantly of our police officers and eluded to them as lazy. It was a reckless statement, true or false. And it was false.

Factually speaking, Laguna Beach officers have shared with me that motorcycle excessive noise and exhaust have been an emphasis of their attention.

My opinion is from a career of law enforcement in the Orange County Sheriff’s Department. That included the honor of being assigned to the Training Division three times, as a deputy, sergeant and lieutenant. Between street assignments I always gravitated back to training because it is what molds the future of law enforcement. And I can assure you that California police officers, specifically Orange County police officers, are the best in the nation.

I was fortunate to retire in the assignment of the Orange County Regional Training Academy Commander. I can pledge to you, with confidence, that the required six month academy to become a California police officer weeds out any “lazy” recruits. To the contrary they are trained daily that law enforcement is a career of service to others. Those who do not grasp that concept do not graduate.

Toni Iseman is entitled to express her opinion. But Mayor Iseman we believe should be more prudent in a public forum when speaking about our city police department. Police officers are not perfect. But we police ourselves. Besides self-discipline, the peer discipline is constant. And at times unforgiving. I’d like to believe the same can be said of our city civilian leadership.

The next day, Thursday, September 21, I watched with sadness and reverence as the Laguna Beach Police Department Color Guard folded the Flag of Remembrance for Officer Gordon French. And for Officer Jon Coutchie, commemorating the anniversary of his EOW, (End of Watch), when he was killed in the line of duty, selflessly serving our city. I also saw Laguna Beach police officers I had the privilege of having an active role in their training several years ago. One has an on-duty injury, temporarily preventing him from working on the street. He told me he is determined to return as quickly as physically possible. It reminded me why we can all sleep peacefully every night.

May we all have appreciation for those who serve in public service. But may we also have a special gratitude in our hearts for those who stand watch, 24/7, between us and our worst fears. And whenever possible, a word of thanks or even a simple nod of recognition can be all it takes to help them make it to  the end of that sometimes thankless shift.

Jeff Bardzik
Laguna Beach Resident

* Editor’s Note: LagunaBeachCHAT welcomes guest articles on topics of general interest, from respected sources. If a guest article is accepted as relevant and topical, we commit to making no changes (other than spelling and small technical corrections) and will publish the article in its entirety.