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Time of Renewal in Fire-Scarred Laguna : Rebuilding: New home is rising from ashes with first permit issued under speeded city process.


LAGUNA BEACH — At 838 Manzanita Drive, both the physical and symbolic rebuilding of fire-ravaged Laguna Beach has begun.

There, Charles and Louise Benton are determined to put the worst disaster in Orange County history behind them. They are the first to obtain a city permit to replace the hillside home they lost when a firestorm swept through the community on Oct. 27 and claimed 366 homes.

Already, the wood studs of the walls are framed in place and a roof has been buttoned on top.

"I built this home 35 years ago," said 78-year-old Louise Couse Benton, a well-known local artist who visits the construction site each day. "I knew I could do it again."

In the weeks ahead, many other homeowners will follow the Bentons as the city begins to reassemble itself from the wreckage left by the fire. The welcome sight of new construction springing up in the neighborhoods, the chorus of hammers and saws and the energy of the workers is an important part of the healing process still desperately needed in this coastal city of 24,000 people, said City Councilman Wayne L. Peterson.

"People need to get to the point of putting their lives back together," Peterson said. "You can't really do that in a rented apartment somewhere. You have to be able to move forward, get the kids back in school, get the old phone numbers back and slowly pull everything back into order."

To help that effort, this city--notorious for rigid construction standards--has streamlined its building permit process.

Following the Bentons' permits, three more have been issued so far--including two in county-controlled Emerald Bay. More are expected and, within 30 days, a dozen more homes should start going up all over the city, officials said.

"It would be wonderful to see the new growth," said Susan Sandys, a six-year resident. "As it is now, you can still see the scars all over the city."

Pushed along by hot Santa Ana winds on that infamous afternoon in October, the fast-moving flames burned a path of ruin down Laguna Canyon toward the ocean and into the Emerald Bay, Canyon Acres and Mystic Hills neighborhoods. Entire residential streets, once chockablock with homes, were scorched and the structures leveled to their foundations and chimneys.

For the last four months, while homeowners struggled with the shock of loss and negotiated with their insurance agents, the city's energies have been dedicated to a cleanup period. The barren hillsides were sandbagged to protect against mudslides, and the mounds of rubble and ash have been swept from city streets.

The newest chapter in the ongoing story of post-fire Laguna Beach is the rebuilding, said Mayor Ann Christoph.

"The majority of the cleanup was finished by Christmas," said Christoph, a landscape architect. "Then the utility companies came in and made their repairs. . . . Now the city can regrow and come back. I think the community will be relieved to see people rebuilding their homes and the city come back to normal."

The Bentons, both residents of Laguna Beach since the 1930s, did not set out to be pioneers in the rebuilding effort. But Louise Benton was ahead of many others because she knew just what she wanted: the same wood-and-glass home designed by renowned Laguna Beach architect Chris Abel in 1959 and built by local craftsman Jim Schoenleber.

"It was a wonderful home with beautiful views," she said. "We've made a few changes, but it will have beautiful, beautiful views again. That was my main thought."

The 2,400-square-foot Manzanita Drive home was actually built by Louise and Irven Couse, her first husband. After he died, Louise five years ago married Charles Benton, 82, known for the popular Benton's Coffee Shop once located at Main Beach, whose own first wife had died.

The Bentons' application was given a "more or less over-the-counter" approval, said Kyle Butterwick, the city's director of community development for the last seven years.

The city's often agonizing permit process has been temporarily revamped to ease homeowners' nerves and get Laguna Beach under construction again, Butterwick said.

"It has been a very high priority of the city to expedite the permit process," Butterwick said. "As a result, things are moving very quickly now."

As of last Friday, 50 applications for permits have been submitted to the city, including nine in one day--last Thursday--Butterwick said. During normal times, the city might get three or four permit applications a month, he said.

Along with the streamlined process came strict rebuilding guidelines, something Laguna Beach learned from the cities of Oakland and Berkeley, which were hit by catastrophic fires in 1992. Those cities moved quickly without guidelines and wound up mired in squabbles among neighbors.

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