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Laguna Beach aims to streamline project approval process with zoning code amendment

Patrons shop and dine on Forest Avenue in Laguna Beach on Thursday, Sept. 10, 2020.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

In hopes of streamlining the approval process for proposed projects while maintaining high development standards, the Laguna Beach City Council last week approved an amendment to the city’s zoning code.

One of the key changes to the code is a reduction in the number of projects that would be required to go through the design review process. All such projects would still be subject to zoning plan checks.

In the past two years — since the City Council in 2019 asked the community development staff to address a problem with projects being slow to gain approval — the city’s design review board has been asked to consider 249 applications, 84 of which would have come off that board’s agendas had the streamlining measures been in place, according to Community Development Director Marc Wiener.

The city’s planning commission studied the proposed amendment twice, first in October and then in April, when it gave its recommendation to the City Council that it be adopted without modification.

In addition to expanding the list of projects eligible for an exception from design review, the ordinance allows for staff administrative review of minor projects, such as minor roof alterations that won’t affect view equity in the neighborhood and additions to single-family homes that don’t create a new upper story or increase the height of a residence above 15 feet from ground elevation.

Administrative design review shaves time off a project’s approval because it does not require a staff report, although hearings are held weekly and public notice is required.

The staff report presented to council noted a conservative approach will be taken in exercising administrative design review, and projects considered to be “controversial” will be referred to the appropriate design review body — either the Design Review Board or the Planning Commission.

Councilman George Weiss asked Wiener how a project would be interpreted as controversial by staff.

“The threshold would be fairly low, but at the same time, we’re not going to refer something if it’s what we view as being frivolous,” the community development director assured Weiss.

“While we want to streamline the process, it’s very important to also still have that high level of review and allow for neighbors of projects to have the opportunity to be aware of what’s going on and provide input on that,” Wiener said.

There were also safety amendments made that exempt certain roofing, exterior wildfire resistant construction materials and seismic improvements to property from going through design review.

“We support the safety amendment exceptions and are pleased that the Planning Commission unanimously approved them,” said Tom Gibbs, a member of the city’s emergency and disaster preparedness committee. “We commend this effort on simplifying and streamlining approval processes, including and most importantly public safety elements.

“The safety exceptions do not impact any reasonable aesthetic or view concerns, and generally streamlining is an important focus to achieve public safety.”

Gibbs added that the city does not want to discourage homeowners from undertaking safety measures, especially those related to fire risk.

One of the modifications the council made to the amendment involved accessory dwelling units, also known as “granny flats”: If a property already has one and its owner wants to expand the size of the residence, the proposed project will have to go through the regular design review process rather than an administrative review.

The Laguna Beach Unified School District’s new summer enrichment program will allow students to sign up for courses of interest over a two-week period leading up to the 2021-22 school year.

The list for referrals and exceptions to design review will be established by the council in a future resolution.

In their comments before approving the amendment on a 4-1 vote, some council members said they favored allowing a project to be appealed to the council after it goes through administrative design review.

“I want [appeal] to council,” Councilman Peter Blake said. “We’re trying to avoid [Design Review Board hearings]. Why would we send it to DRB? We’re trying to keep things from going to DRB, we’re trying to eliminate the weaponization of neighbors against each other and the politicization of the building process in this community and all the obstruction that has taken place over decades.”

Councilwoman Toni Iseman said she felt strongly that projects should go through design review, and that was the basis for her dissenting vote.

“I want to go on record that I wish I could support this,” Iseman said. “I believe that the design review board should be the experts to look at this, and I regret that there was not the ability to compromise on that.”

According to Mayor Bob Whalen, the amendment to the city’s local coastal plan must also be approved by the Coastal Commission before going into effect. “The timing depends on their calendar, but it could take up to a year,” he said.

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