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Making Noise Over Gliders

A Laguna Niguel man sues over the silent model planes, which at times crash in his yard. Council votes next month on new rules.

November 24, 2002|Dave McKibben | Times Staff Writer

Remote-control gliders are a familiar sight over Aliso Creek Valley, soaring silently as they float and dip on thermal currents along a 300-foot slope. But much like golf balls and baseballs, the model planes sometimes veer off course.

That's where Stephen Valbuena and the country's strongest law regulating the model gliders come in. Some see the lightweight craft as things of beauty. Valbuena, who lives a few yards from the tiny Lilly Shapell Park in Laguna Niguel that has been claimed as a sort of glider enthusiasts' airfield, sees them only as a nuisance.

Valbuena grew so irked at the model planes crash-landing in his yard and clipping his roof that he took Laguna Niguel to court -- seeking a ban on the fliers. He says gliders flying near his house pose a danger.

"I'm really concerned about my wife or myself getting injured or killed," he said. "I'm also concerned about neighbors and the little kids that use the park."

Valbuena's lawsuit against the city was the fourth he filed. The others were harassment complaints against individual glider pilots. Valbuena himself was cited for misdemeanor vandalism in April after a pilot told police that Valbuena was seen shooting planes out of the sky with a BB gun. The district attorney's office later dropped the charges, saying evidence was insufficient.

Sensing the dispute could get even uglier, the city has reluctantly stepped in and drawn up an ordinance requiring glider pilots to obtain a permit.

The new regulations say gliders can be flown only over the back slope of the park and the valley to the west. They may not be flown over residences and only seven gliders may be flown at one time. If a pilot abuses the new laws, his permit can be revoked or suspended by the city's parks and recreation director.

The City Council approved the ordinance on a first reading Tuesday and is expected to take a final vote Dec. 3.

Pilots who have used this public park for 25 years would seem to be natural opponents to such stringent rules. But even before Valbuena moved into the Hillcrest Estates gated neighborhood two years ago, hobbyist Mike Lance's flying club -- the Laguna Niguel Soaring Guild -- was seeking to rein in reckless pilots who didn't measure up to club standards.

In the past year, the guild has posted a series of rules and safety regulations for those using the site, which isn't even as long as a football field.

"Once the homes were built there in 1998, I thought we needed to have more control over who was flying out there," said Lance, 56, president of the guild.

"It's one of the best flying sites in the United States, and we wanted to protect it."

Officials with the Academy of Model Aeronautics, the 175,000-member national organization that oversees remote-control gliders, say the ordinance is unique.

"I give a great deal of credit to the city for realizing the importance of this activity," said Jay Mealy, the academy's programs director. "This law covers all the bases and creates a very acceptable flying environment in that community."

But Valbuena doesn't believe the ordinance will make much difference.

"They are calling it an ordinance, but it's the same thing they've had at the park here for a few years," he said. "The ordinance is almost exactly the same as the rules. You're dealing with currents and thermal winds. It has nothing to do with experience. It's not about training. These planes can drop out of the sky at any time."

Meanwhile, Valbuena's suit is pending. A preliminary injunction was denied this summer, but his request for a permanent injunction has yet to be heard. According to court records, Valbuena said the planes have crashed into his two-story home and his backyard at least 10 times since early 2000. He contends that one of the planes damaged his roof tiles, causing hundreds of dollars' damage.

Pilots say they have gone out of their way to accommodate Valbuena, who apparently is on his own in his clash with the glider pilots. Terry Dixon, Laguna Niguel's city attorney, said Valbuena is the only homeowner in the 180-home gated neighborhood who has complained about the gliders.

"The other neighbors are real amenable and understanding," said Yani Hasircoglu, who says his plane was confiscated when it landed in Valbuena's yard.

"This guy [Valbuena] is out to change the world. This situation is the same as someone buying a home near a golf course. Occasionally, an accident is going to happen."

If the conditions weren't perfect at Shapell Park and model aircraft flying sites weren't becoming so limited, the hobbyists might be willing to go elsewhere. But the park, they say, is a magical place, where the wind is funneled through the canyon, creating rising air and a bowl-like effect.

"That's what makes this place so unique," Hasircoglu said. "And if you lose your plane, it's easily accessible on the slope, because the shrubs are so low."

If the new regulation takes effect in early March as expected, Lance believes fewer pilots will be veering off their flight path.

"Almost everything that's happened out there is because of inexperienced pilots," Lance said. "They don't have good equipment, knowledge, experience or the skill."

The city plans to move cautiously, so that if someone's glider is caught flying over a house, he won't be immediately prosecuted.

"We want these regulations to be reasonable," said Tim Casey, Laguna Niguel city manager. "We don't want people calling 911 every time they see a model plane flying over their house."

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