Opening a business in Laguna Beach is a bit like studying for an exam: It helps to do homework.
That is the advice from Planning Commissioners and a Laguna Beach Chamber of Commerce official.
And as any test taker knows, expect a few unexpected questions.
The city has made a concerted effort to reach out to the business community to hear its challenges and suggestions through a series of Open for Business workshops. The roundtable discussions will include business owners and officials from the city, City Council, Planning Commission, and chamber.
Councilman Steve Dicterow, planning commissioners Anne Johnson and Linda Dietrich and planner Monica Tuchscher listened to Laguna Beach resident and small-business owner Kavita Reddy, among others, at the most recent workshop, held June 20 at the Susi Q Senior Center.
The goal of the workshops is to help make opening a business less complicated for prospective business owners.
"We were concerned so many people felt they couldn't get through the bureaucracy of City Hall," Johnson said.
A business' location plays a key role in the amount of regulation it must deal with.
Downtown stores face stricter scrutiny than shops in north or south Laguna because of the city's Downtown Specific Plan.
The plan is a road map of development guidelines for residents and businesses in an area bordered by the Laguna Canyon frontage road to the east, Pacific Ocean to the west, and Cliff Drive and Legion Street to the north and south, respectively.
The guidelines are meant to protect the city's mix of architectural styles, small-scale buildings and variety of shops.
Robin's Jean, a clothing store at 264 Forest Ave., has already opened, but Planning Commissioners were concerned that the store's original facade had too much metal, which could reflect sunlight and or headlights, creating glare for pedestrians and motorists.
At the May 8 Planning Commission meeting, city staff asked Lance Polster, the store's agent, to redo the facade using less metal.
Polster returned to the commission's June 12 meeting with a refurbished front that would include about 44% stucco, 24% metal and 32% glass. The original design used 70% metal and 30% glass.
"All materials are reflective, even glass," Polster said during the meeting. "I'm not sure it's a safety issue with cars."
Commissioners debated the merits and drawbacks of possible designs and how the overall facade factored into the downtown's overall look and feel.
Planning Commission Chairman Norm Grossman and Commissioner Robert Zur Schmiede both said the original frontage was too industrial-looking for Forest Avenue at two separate meetings.
Dietrich was concerned about the reflection but liked Polster's changes.
"I like the addition of soffits to change the depth, and the amount of metal is just fine," Dietrich said at the June 12 meeting. "The [city's] urban design guidelines discourage sameness, and this is set apart from other buildings."
Planning Commissioners approved the design 5 to 0 with the condition that the metal could be removed and resurfaced to reduce glare if the city's Director of Community Development John Montgomery decided that was necessary.
Reddy, a Laguna Beach resident, had an easier time opening her craft store at 670 S. Coast Hwy. since she was replacing one retail store with another. The paperwork is greater when switching uses, like putting a restaurant into a former retail spot.
In that case, the restaurant owner would need to get a conditional use permit from the city, which requires Planning Commission approval and may be appealed to the City Council, Tuchscher wrote in an email.
Since Buy Hand is outside the city's Downtown Specific Plan area, Reddy's store — her first — did not need to satisfy certain standards, such as building design and landscaping.
Planning commissioners face a difficult task when it comes to deciding what looks good or goes with a certain area, Grossman said.
"With [design review] so much is subjective," Grossman said. "It comes down to what people like."
Reddy may not have faced design challenges of Robin's Jean, but attracting customers to a store outside the immediate downtown area has been tough.
"I chose this site because it is less than a block from downtown, so I thought there would be great foot traffic," Reddy said in a phone interview. "People don't walk this way as I would expect."
Reddy is thinking about banding together with neighbors and approaching the city about placing a sign or arrow alerting pedestrians to the businesses in the area.
"Most of these businesses on the block are new," Reddy said. "From talking to my seasoned neighbors, this block didn't have many stores on it for awhile."
All businesses within the city need to obtain a business license, which requires paying a fee based on the business' estimated gross receipts, according to the city's website.
For example, the city charges retailers, wholesalers and manufacturers 44 cents per $1,000, the website said. Some businesses, such as realtors, insurers and general contractors pay a yearly flat fee. The city charges realtors, insurers and stock brokers $172 per year while general contractors pay $204 a year.
Revenue from the licenses supplies the general fund, which pays for police and fire services, street maintenance, parks and other city services, according to the city's website.
But city and chamber officials are looking at ways to streamline the permitting and licensing processes.
The chamber is charged with recommending changes to the municipal code relating to permits and development. The City Council approved this at its June 4 rmeeting.
Even though Robin's Jean needed two hearings, Polster, who has worked in Laguna since 1979, appreciated the planning commissioners' attention to detail.
"They did a good job weighing in on an issue that is somewhat controversial," Polster said. "They were fair."
The business climate within the city has improved, especially within the last 10 years, he said.
"This Planning Commission is far more business-friendly," Polster said. "They are welcoming and open to different types of businesses. They look at how they can help a business get approval."
Two steps that have helped are assigning a planner to each applicant and providing iPads to code enforcement officers so they can enter information while in the field, Johnson said.
Regardless of the business, planning is crucial, said Kristine Thalman, the chamber's executive director.
"You have to have a business plan, regardless of the city," Thalman said. "You can't say, 'I want to open a business' and leave it at that."
Successful businesses are plugged into the community. They give back to the community and work with neighbors, according to Thalman.
"Be a community partner, do your homework and look at the market you're heading into," Thalman said. "It's also about providing a quality product. You could have the most beautiful restaurant, but if the food is awful, it's going to fail."