Laguna council and Design Review Board offer ideas for smoothing out development process

Laguna Beach Design Review Board members Caren Liuzzi, Loraine Mullen-Kress, Deborah Neev, Monica Simpson and Meg Monahan met with the Laguna Beach City Council on Tuesday to discuss ways to improve the design review process.
(Photo by Faith E. Pinho)

The Laguna Beach City Council met with the city’s Design Review Board on Tuesday to discuss tightening the design review process, doing more outreach to the community and shortening the time it takes for an applicant to get a project approved.

Each board member, including two who did not apply for reappointment, gave reports suggesting improvements. Nearly all said much of the delay in the design review process comes when people are preparing their applications — well before they reach the board.

Board members said applicants should receive suggestions from city staff for project improvements all at once rather than in sequence, which members said can add months to a project’s timeline. Member Meg Monahan said anyone who is willing should be permitted to pay for an initial study to identify and address issues early.

“I also hear complaints that … for any new house or major addition it takes at least two years to get through the process,” Monahan said. “By the time they get to us, people are so emotionally and financially vested in their projects that any kind of change that we ask for starts to become adversarial.”

Several board members voiced a need for more outreach to people considering a development project to help inform them about the design review process and requirements. Members said they often receive incomplete applications, which could be prevented if applicants were better informed about the criteria and guidelines. They also said applicants should tell neighbors about development plans early in the process to prevent pushback later.

“There are some architects who are ready and willing to push for unrealistic projects with no regard for the impacts to surrounding neighbors,” said board Chairwoman Loraine Mullen-Kress, whose term expired after Tuesday’s meeting. “The city needs to do more to require projects to be neighborhood-compatible prior to the DRB process.”

Monica Simpson, whose term also expired Tuesday, suggested holding “Design Review 101” sessions for community members to meet with DRB members and city staff and learn about the process.

Mullen-Kress and Simpson did not apply for reappointment, and the council later selected Louis Weil and Kristine Thalman to replace them.

Board member Deborah Neev, whom the council reappointed Tuesday, said a flow chart might be helpful for applicants to visualize the course of their projects.

“From what I’ve heard, both from many applicant teams and talking with some of the architects, there’s a very heightened level of anxiety by the time they get to Design Review, primarily because the process itself takes so long and there’s some misinformation or they haven’t really done a deep dive themselves to see where there might be some hang-ups,” Neev said.

Several board members and Councilwoman Sue Kempf supported the idea of collecting feedback from applicants who have completed the design review process. They also discussed requiring more training for incoming board members to help them understand the board’s requirements.

The DRB is tasked with 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.

The board also is charged with protecting Laguna’s “village atmosphere,” which the municipal code characterizes as “appropriately scaled development, diverse and unique architectural designs, pedestrian orientation and sensitivity to the natural conditions of the site.” The board is bound to the guidelines of the city General Plan, Local Coastal Program and zoning standards.

Mayor Pro Tem Steve Dicterow said there should be a comprehensive review of the city’s land-use entitlement process since so many parts of the system overlap.

“I think that in some sense what we’re all talking about so far are a lot of Band-Aids, but it doesn’t get to the heart of what the problem is,” Dicterow said. “We’ve got to look at this from a zero base.”

Mayor Bob Whalen asked about public complaints that the board can exercise too much discretion in its decisions.

“I think if you’re applying the criteria, you’re not making personal decisions about style,” Monahan replied. “That shouldn’t be part of the discretionary process.”

City Manager John Pietig said city staff is working on its own recommendations for improvements to the DRB and other parts of the city’s development process and would consider the board’s suggestions before presenting a report to the City Council at its March 5 meeting.

Councilwoman Toni Iseman thanked the board for its work.

“There’s so much talent sitting over there and so much dedication. I doubt we could get a better team of five,” she said. “You made the town better.”

Notably quiet was Councilman Peter Blake, who prompted the gathering. At a heated council meeting a month ago, Blake proposed opening all five positions on the Design Review Board for reappointment, though the terms of Monahan and Caren Liuzzi don’t expire until 2020.

The council decided instead to hold Tuesday’s discussion with the DRB before appointing three board members.

In an interview last week, Blake said he would like a different training process for people who join the DRB and more architects from out of town working on local projects.

“Somewhere this group of people decided that this is what Laguna Beach is supposed to look like,” Blake said. “No, the beauty of Laguna Beach is its diversity of architecture.”