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County Decides Fate of Trabuco Canyon's Christmas Lights

Residents in Wagon Wheel got a notice from the county to remove their Christmas lights. That won't be the case.

By Martin Henderson

A firestorm of bad publicity for Orange County government that extended into Europe will, ultimately, be good news for residents on a pair of Trabuco Canyon streets who received notice they had to remove strands of Christmas lights that connected their homes.

The ensuing maelstrom could not have gone worse for the county, which was depicted as the Grinch trying to steal Christmas from holiday-minded residents who draped lights house-to-house across their streets.

A spokeswoman with Orange County Public Works said Tuesday that homes on Abilene Drive and Drover Court were essentially getting a reprieve for violations of a code that prohibits stringing the lights across county roads without something called an encroachment permit. 

Public Works learned Tuesday that a lighting contractor who installed the lights, came forward and on behalf of the residents and will submit a permit application Wednesday morning rather than having the 34 residents who were served notice apply separately for applications. The county waived the $65 fee at the request of Supervisor Pat Bates. And, rather than have the county take 2-3 weeks to process the permit, it would be done right away.

The story began Sunday with a televised report on KTLA citing a letter to residents advising them to remove the lights before Dec. 4. It quickly turned viral.

Public Works sent the notices to residents of Wagon Wheel on Wednesday, Dec. 27, giving them one week to comply with an order to remove the strands.  

However, the notices were unclear about a remedy to the problem other than removal of the lights. There was no mention of a permit available. Worse, the office of Public Works was closed Thursday through Sunday for the Thanksgiving weekend, limiting the window of opportunity for resolution.

"At the end of the day, they're taking a hard line right out of the gate and it [upsets] people," said Nathan Vaca, a resident on Abilene who received a notice. "It was done poorly."

The county agreed.

"We've definitely taken a lot away from this situation," said Nadia Haidar, spokeswoman for Public Works. "We are collaboratively working with all our sections to develop a more efficient and clear way to address people who are being notified of such violations. ... Even if we added a description of the code it would clarify some things and it wouldn't have snowballed." 

And snowball it did. The plight of the holiday-loving residents showed up on morning national news broadcasts and in the London Daily Mail

Haidar received emails with the general sentiment, she said, of the "You hate God and aren't Christian" variety.

Supervisor Bates' office called Monday to find out what in Sam Hill was going on. Haidar said Bates took the lead in helping resolve the issue.

"The county is not against events, we're all for events, you just have to get the proper permits," said Kristen Camuglia, spokeswoman for Bates. "It's unfortunate that this has been played as 'anti-Christmas.' When the supervisor found out about it, she said the lights have to stay, there's no way we're taking them down."

The incident has sparked movement toward streamlining the process of getting an encroachment permit, which will be available online instead of having to drive to the office in Santa Ana, and also making county homeowner associations aware, Camuglia said. The idea is to make it easier for residents who have haunted houses at Halloween or Candy Cane Lanes at Christmas.

"At the end of the day, it's getting a lot of press," Vaca said Monday. "It may be much ado about nothing. The reason I think people flagged it ... is because it's awesome, it's Christmas-y, it's cool."

And now, it's staying.

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