The Newport Beach City Council voted Tuesday to move ahead with an ordinance that would create a 300-foot "buffer zone" to keep pickets away from a targeted individual's home.

The 6-0 decision followed a recent night-time demonstration during which abortion protesters targeted the residence of a local doctor, writing slurs in chalk in front of the house and generally frightening residents.

While council members said they understood the need to protect free speech, they felt that the rule would ensure that residents could find peace and privacy in their homes.

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"I was concerned about the neighbors," said Councilwoman Nancy Gardner. "I do think it's important that our homes be our sanctuary."

Frequent council critic Jim Mosher said the city could be toeing a very fine legal line, and that the ordinance seemed unnecessary given that police probably have a "whole briefcase of laws" on their side should a protest became a nuisance.

"It sounded simple, but it is a difficult issue, balancing the right to free speech ... with a right to privacy," he said.

According to a city staff report, the ordinance is based on similar laws in other cities that have stood up to legal challenges.

 

Encroaching piers

The council also considered a proposed change to the way the city reviews permits for the few piers that encroach on neighboring properties.

At issue was whether permits for these piers should be transferable between property owners through the same Harbor Resources Department administrative process as nearly all other types of residential piers, or if the encroaching piers should continue to undergo Harbor Commission review before they can be transferred.

City staff members told the council the agenda item was meant to streamline a longer process that — through a kind of quirk in the system affecting only a small portion of piers — could hold up things like estate planning for those who want to easily transfer pier ownership between family members. For the vast majority of pier permit transfers, Harbor Resources manager Chris Miller said Monday, it's a "relatively painless process."

Miller said the fewer than 10 piers that would be affected have been allowed to cross over neighboring property lines through a variety of individual agreements over the years.

But Balboa Island resident Susan Riddle, who lives next door to one such pier, told the council she was concerned that if the process were to change, her neighbor could ramp up boat rentals without proper review. He had applied for a business license to do so, she said.

That, she said, would aggravate an already tight parking and traffic situation on the island.

Riddle said she'd been looking forward to a permit transfer process so the city would be forced to consider revoking the permit for what she called an illegal encroachment.

"When I purchased my home 20 years ago, his pier had been encroaching for decades," she wrote in an email. "My Realtor told me that although it was illegal on many fronts, I would probably have to wait for the [the original permit holder] to pass away. ... I have patiently waited 20 years, and was expecting the city to abide by its own ordinances."

Instead, she said, the owner, John Vallely, applied for a business license to use the pier for boat rentals.

But city staff members said whether that business use is approved is a separate issue from the pier permitting process. In other words, they said, just because the pier permit could change hands without a commission review does not mean that a proposed business operation would pass muster with various city entities, such as the Planning Commission.

Ultimately, after a discussion that saw council members falling on both sides of what City Attorney Aaron Harp called a "very narrow issue," the group opted to continue the item to its next meeting, which is set for September.