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Laguna Beach council takes first steps to streamline city’s design review process

Laguna Beach City Hall.
Laguna Beach City Council votes Tuesday approved the first phase of changes to the city’s design review process. Proposals for a second round are expected to go to the council later this year.
(File Photo)

Laguna Beach is taking steps to make it easier for homeowners to change their properties by streamlining its contentious design review process — to the satisfaction of some and the chagrin of others.

The easiest vote for the City Council on Tuesday night was to unanimously let city staff handle applications for air conditioning units rather than have them go through the Design Review Board.

Council members also unanimously agreed to allow appeals of administrative design review items to go directly to them, without passing through the DRB first, and to transfer review authority for some public works and capital improvement projects to the Planning Commission.

On a 4-1 vote, the council shortened the period required for notifying neighbors and staking — setting up stakes and ties around an intended project area to give an idea of the proposed density — to 21 days. It was previously 28 days.

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The measure was a compromise, as the original staff proposal was to tighten the requirement to 14 days.

Mayor Pro Tem Steve Dicterow said neighbors could be out of town for two weeks and wouldn’t have sufficient time to assess the impact of a proposed project.

Councilman Peter Blake voted against the 21-day period, saying two weeks was plenty of time.

All the changes voted on Tuesday night will return to the City Council for a second reading.

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The Design Review Board is tasked with protecting Laguna’s “village atmosphere” and assessing development projects in the city based on 16 criteria — including view equity, neighborhood compatibility, access, privacy, environmental sustainability and context, historic preservation, design articulation and integrity, lighting and glare, landscaping, public art, sign quality and pedestrian use.

Resident Becky Jones advocated for keeping projects under the DRB’s purview. She said she’s heard residents complain more about the time it takes to get through City Hall’s processes than the DRB.

“Put your faith in the experience and the instincts of Design Review Board members,” she told the council. “Don’t try to supplant them; try to support them.”

Resident John Gabbard, a former congressional candidate, said the changes didn’t go far enough. He called them a “feel-good measure that will do nothing to change the process” and suggested eliminating the DRB.

“There’s a palpable anger in the streets over how this process is being used,” Gabbard said of the DRB. “The staff report prepared for you today is an incremental change to a system that’s broken at its core.”

The steps the City Council took Tuesday represent the first phase of proposed changes to the Design Review Board’s responsibilities. A second round that would include more-substantial policy changes is expected to go before the council later this year.

Councilwoman Sue Kempf, who championed cleaning up the design review process during her campaign last fall, reminded those in attendance Tuesday that it would take time to change the system. The DRB has been a frequent topic of discussion at council meetings since the November election, including a full presentation by DRB members in February suggesting improvements.

Kempf pointed to several decisions the council has already made to improve the back end of city processes, such as approving an action plan that includes adding positions to the Community Development Department to process applications and permits quicker, renovating the counter and lobby space in City Hall, updating department software and doing more educational outreach.

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