Sculptor and developer Louis Longi got the go-ahead from the California Coastal Commission on Jan. 8 to build a 30-unit artist work/live project, nearly bringing to an end a contentious episode in Laguna Beach over what constitutes acceptable development in Laguna Canyon.
Providing housing for artists, including eight low-income units, was a key factor in the unanimous decision, commission Vice Chairwoman Jana Zimmer said.
“I am respectful of what life is like in a canyon that is in a flood plain and in a high-fire area,” Zimmer said. “We have been talking lately about how we can further encourage affordable housing in the coastal zone. This artist space is one type of housing I feel a strong obligation to support. As long as we are not in conflict with mandatory policies, this project can be found to be consistent with all applicable [local coastal program] policies.”
The Coastal Commission was obliged to respond in the matter because of an appeal of the City Council’s approval of the project by residents Audrey Prosser, Jackie Gallagher and Devora Hertz and environmental consultant Roger Butow. Butow’s concerns centered on the potential for environmental harm, while the residents have argued that the project is too big for the site on Laguna Canyon Road.
The approved plan calls for two two-story buildings with a total of 17,242 square feet of indoor work/live space that would sit 25 feet from the center of Laguna Canyon Creek. After a year of considerable debate in the community over the project, it garnered close votes — 3-2 decisions each — from the Planning Commission and City Council.
Supporters have said the facility would help keep more artists in a city renowned for its artistic heritage. Opponents argued the 36-foot-tall project would be too close to a creek prone to flooding and that it violates policies of the Laguna Canyon Annexation Area Specific Plan that specify that development be small-scale and rural in character.
“We encourage artist work/live in the city,” Laguna Beach Planning Manager Ann Larson said. “We’re excited about a project that will have small units for the type of work artists are supposed to do.”
Longi, a bronze sculptor who lives in a single-family home on the property, said he was simply working within the city’s allowable zoning standards for the area.
“We came to 30 units based on all of the setbacks,” Longi told commissioners. "[Thirty] was the number we knew we could build and make it work for 60% of work space and 30% of living space.”
One issue brought before the Coastal Commission was whether the facility should be moved an additional 10 feet from Laguna Canyon Creek than what Longi proposed — 25 feet from the center of the creek.
Commissioners could have decided that the creek should be placed on the state’s major watercourse map, in which case the facility would need to be built 25 feet from the creek’s bank. But they did not, letting the plan’s specifications remain.
Attorney Julie Hamilton, a former Laguna Beach planner who represents appellants Prosser, Gallagher and Hertz, said that despite not being on the map, the creek deserves increased environmental protection.
“The [Laguna Canyon] Annexation Area Specific Plan points to the value of the creek,” Hamilton told commissioners. “It drains a 5,900-acre watershed and is the major watercourse through the city. The setback from the creek is grossly inadequate and not particularly safe.”
Butow, who represented himself before the commissioners, said he is considering contesting the project in court.
Butow, an environmental consultant who specializes in land use and regulatory compliance for private and public agencies, faults the city for not considering alternatives to the proposed 30 units, which he said violates the California Environmental Quality Act.
After consulting with Coastal Commission staff, Longi voluntarily submitted to the agency last fall a revised plan to maintain and restore sensitive habitat in the creek, at its banks and within the 25-foot setback area.
The updated plan was made public in December, but with the holidays and abbreviated work schedules, Butow explained, residents as well as representatives from agencies such as the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board and California Department of Fish and Wildlife did not have enough time to review the proposal before the commission hearing.
“It’s an unreasonable burden to rush this appeal,” Butow wrote in a letter to the Coastal Commission.
The updated habitat plan includes removing non-native species, including four date palms that stand in the stream bed. Longi said they will be cut high enough on the trunk so as not to disturb the root system.
Native plants that include arroyo willow, blue elderberry and creeping rye grass will be added, according to the report provided by Longi.
A certified biologist will oversee the restoration for five years.
“I’m excited about moving to the next phase and that the commission stuck to the facts,” Longi said.
Legal challenges to a Coastal Commission ruling must be filed no later than 60 days from the date of the ruling, according to the Coastal Act.