MORAGA -- Rules governing open space and ridgeline preservation in Moraga are undergoing scrutiny following a push from town leaders to strengthen them.

Residents and planning commissioners took a first stab this week at addressing a Town Council goal to bolster the general plan's protection of Moraga's prized ridgelines and open spaces as outlined in the Moraga Open Space Ordinance. The objective is part of an annual list of goals town leaders compiled earlier this year.

While Monday's "study session" didn't result in any immediate action on how officials should beef up open space protection and limit development, planning commissioners began debating how to address a task that chairman Frank Comprelli suggested could take several years.

At issue is the amount of regulation in laws overseeing development and the preservation of the town's ridgelines such as the "major" Indian, Sanders, Mulholland and Campolindo ridges. Currently, Moraga has a number of policies governing open space development, including specific protection for ridgelines. There are also guidelines for grading and construction on or near slopes.

But those policies may not support the perception that Moraga has a highly regulatory environment for new development in hillside and ridgeline areas, according to planning director Shawna Brekke-Read.

In a staff report, Brekke-Read identifies several issues officials should address, including general plan "action programs" that have not been implemented, such as the creation of a "hillside overlay district" to regulate development on hillside sites with greater than 20 percent slope. Development is not allowed on slopes with grades of 20 percent or greater and on minor ridgeline crests.

Other areas staffers suggest examining are slope calculations, grading at hillside construction sites and the development permitting near existing slopes.

The discussion also illustrated that some residents remain sharply divided over open space protection and its impact on development.

The much-debated issue has been "very destructive" to the community, said developer and land owner Dave Bruzzone.

Bruzzone proposed Measure J, which would have added some open space while allowing development in Indian and Bollinger valleys, which his family owns. That initiative was defeated in 2008 by voters who also rejected a measure that would have protected that land and other open space.

Bruzzone argued that changes resulting from the council's request for more ridgeline protection and open space development limits would hamper projects, including the proposed 126 single-family homes in Bollinger Valley. The developer has said in the past that prohibiting such projects will result in dense housing downtown.

Moraga open space. (Contra Costa Times/Debby Coleman)
Moraga open space. (Contra Costa Times/Debby Coleman)

Resident Suzanne Jones, a member of Preserve Lamorinda Open Space, called on commissioners to clarify general plan policy and definitions, and to look at their application -- or lack thereof -- on undeveloped, non-MOSO defined ridgelines.

Jones also suggested addressing slope calculation methods she called a major loophole that has allowed development on steep slopes, among other issues.

"They come up again and again so I think it's worthwhile to try to get better clarity and resolution on some of the ambiguities that are in the general plan that aren't going to go away by themselves," Jones said.

The Town Council will discuss the issue before it comes back to the Planning Commission for further deliberation.