Laguna approves action plan aiming to make development process smoother

Laguna Beach’s community development action plan includes adding new planners, changing hours for the planning counter and amending the city code to streamline processes.
(File Photo)

Laguna Beach will take several steps intended to make the project review process easier for property owners following City Council approval of a community development action plan Tuesday night.

The plan is geared toward informing applicants about potential problems with their projects early and streamlining the approval process to get projects through the Community Development Department more quickly and painlessly. To that end, the council approved city staff’s recommendations to add three positions to the department and change the hours for department counter staff.

People also will notice changes to the City Hall lobby and Community Development Department counter, as well as the city website, so they can navigate them more easily.

“I see this as an incredible opportunity for us to streamline the system, clean it up and make it so the residents of this community can finally have some respect in this town,” said Councilman Peter Blake, who made reforming the city’s development review process a pillar of his council campaign last year.

Other changes include updating the department’s software, doing more educational outreach to residents, and training members of city staff, the Design Review Board and Planning Commission. The action plan identifies several procedures to help staff members continually check and improve the processes.

Greg Pfost, director of the Community Development Department, said the recommendations were based on surveys of residents and department staff.

Staff said some of the changes will be paid for with an estimated $325,000 in additional revenue from a 5% increase in the city’s building permit fees and a 15% increase in zoning fees. The council plans to include ongoing costs for the addition of a high-level planner, a planning technician and a counter customer service supervisor in the upcoming two-year budget.

Community development staff is expected to return to the council in June with the first phase of several proposed municipal code amendments intended to further improve the development process. Among those would be refining Design Review Board appeal procedures and transferring review authority of certain projects — such as air conditioner approvals — away from the Design Review Board, to be completed either by the Planning Commission or administratively.

Phase I also would create a waiver process so people with minor development projects don’t have to acquire a coastal development permit.

Phase II code amendment proposals — also to return to the council for discussion later — would allow more projects to be approved at the administrative design review level, change some definitions and give the community development director more discretion to approve minor plans and permits.

“Those are big policy questions,” Pfost said. “Making sure that while we allow for some streamlining ... we make sure that we’re not giving up the process that is important to Laguna.”

The department has already begun taking steps to modify the development approval process, such as sending project applications to relevant departments at once instead of one by one. Residents and Design Review Board members have complained that projects get delayed while applications make the rounds at City Hall.

“The whole idea of the process is to get comments early on in the process so that the applicant knows upfront what the requirements are,” said Jim Pechous, assistant director of community development. “This is designed to help eliminate late hits further down in the process.”

Some residents and council members took issue Tuesday with staff’s recommendation to close the community development counter at 4 p.m. every day so employees could have time to hold meetings and complete other work. The counter currently is open until 5:30 p.m. most days.

The critics pointed out that City Hall is already shut every other Friday, so closing the counter earlier every day would inhibit residents from getting services.

City staff agreed to start a trial of closing early two days a week and will determine which days have the lightest customer traffic.

Like Blake, first-time Councilwoman Sue Kempf campaigned last year on comprehensive improvements to the design review process. She expressed support for the action plan but also suggested methodically reviewing each aspect of the Community Development Department to identify root causes for holdups in the process.

She cited a statistic Pfost mentioned that nearly 24,000 people visited the department counter in the past year. The population of Laguna Beach is about 23,000.

“I need to know, really, what are the underlying problems that are causing us to add staff or have 24,000 people coming to the counter in a small town like this?” she said.