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Hansen: City tries to kill a spirited cactus

There's an ugly cactus on Agate Street.

You can tell it's old. The gnarled, wizened limbs resemble those windswept coastal pines, all knotted and pockmarked. There are random growths that look like warts, giving it a witch-like sensibility.

The longer you look at it, the more you feel sorry for it.

The city of Laguna Beach, however, is not appreciating its anthropomorphic beauty and wants the homeowners to cut back the cactus because it's encroaching on the street and creating a "public nuisance," according to a letter by Todd Henry of the public works department.

The problem is, to cut it back to the "right size" would kill it.

"In an effort to preserve public safety … the City is advising of overgrown vegetation (trees, shrubs, bushes, ground cover, weeds, etc.) along streets, sidewalks, or walkways that interfere with intersection visibility, public use, or maintenance within the public right-of-way," Henry writes. "We are also concerned with vegetation that interferes with storm water runoff, traffic sign visibility or street lighting."

Residents Jim Brown and Dinah Shields, who have lived at the bright blue house for 10 years, are scratching their heads over the city's sudden heavy handedness.

"They've got rules but the question is, do they need to enforce them?" Brown asked. "No neighbor has complained. We moved here specifically because it was Laguna Beach — because it had character."

Indeed, Agate Street is in the Woods Cove neighborhood, considered one of the more unique housing areas of the city, with independent, well-maintained homes and thoughtful, brimming gardens.

People walk in the neighborhood to admire the livable details.

Brown put a simple handmade sign on the cactus, explaining its plight: "Say good-bye to the cactus. The city is making us cut it down to make more parking."

People stop now to take self-portraits in front of the cactus, posting them to Facebook because that's what community activism has become.

"A discretionary call needs to be made, and I'm not clear that that's being done," said Shields. "You know that old quotation about democracy needing eternal vigilance. This is just a little bit — a very small example — of that kind of thinking. You do need to push back against an arbitrary call."

After the cactus started gaining more attention, the city on Tuesday reevaluated its form letter approach to the issue and sent out more inspectors.

"It is encroaching extensively into the public right of way, and it's preventing vehicles from being parked at that location," said Steve May, director of public works. "It's probably one of several hundred similar situations throughout the city. What we're going to do is work with the property owner to trim it a little bit at this time."

Basically, the city gave the residents a year's reprieve, which is not long in cactus years.

"I came up with a catchphrase for the cactus: It's lots of charm with very little harm," Shields said. "I know it's an ugly damned thing but charm doesn't have to be pretty."

Normally, this quiet, unassuming couple, who have been together for almost 40 years, are not muckrakers trying to be a thorn in the city's side, so to speak. They just think the whole thing is a little misguided.

Shields is an author, rare book dealer and owner of Bespoke Libraries. Her living room literally is a library, with one of those intimidating rolling ladders to reach the tall ceiling shelves. It is an impressive collection, specializing in signed first editions of mysteries and literature.

She also volunteers teaching English as a second language and takes care of the lending library at the Susi Q Senior Center.

Brown is an engineer, who sports a long gray beard and could probably make decent part-time work doubling as an affable Santa Claus.

The cactus, meanwhile, is not part of some overgrown, abandoned lot. If you drove by, you may not even notice it. By its nature, Woods Cove is not manicured. There are no sidewalks. The landscaping is usually the natural variety, so the edges are not clearly defined. There is a relaxed comfort, an outgrowth of properly placed priorities.

Is the cactus encroaching into the street? Yes.

Does it really matter? No.

If the city decrees a long-term variance, does it open the floodgates to other exceptions? Maybe.

Everyone has something that's a little off. We are not symmetrical. Our smile is crooked. One leg is longer than the other. We have furrowed brows, chipped teeth and graying hair that feels like salt.

We know what it's like to see our life from the other end. So we can't help but appreciate the long view. Small things become smaller.

Let's face it, if we were told to preserve ourselves for the public good, to just be nice and behave, we would all be purged by 30, like some "Logan's Run" rejects: expunged, trimmed, modified, made perfect.

We would all be shiny, aligned and exquisitely boring.

The fact is, we should have more cactus in our lives, prickly and edible, helping to sustain us in spite of ourselves.

DAVID HANSEN is a writer and Laguna Beach resident. He can be reached at davidhansen@yahoo.com.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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