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Legal fighting over planned Laguna artist work/live project continues as developer sues Coastal Commission over permit delay

Legal fighting over planned Laguna artist work/live project continues as developer sues Coastal Commission over permit delay
Sculptor Louis Longi, pictured in 2014, visits the creek behind the planned location of his artist work/live project on Laguna Canyon Road in Laguna Beach. (File Photo)

A Laguna Beach sculptor who has been trying for years to build an artist work/live complex on Laguna Canyon Road is suing the California Coastal Commission and 33 of its current and former members and employees for withholding his development permit and demanding that he reimburse legal fees from an earlier case involving the commission and project opponents.

In the latest episode in the saga of Louis Longi’s plan to create a multi-unit apartment and artist workspace, he filed the lawsuit with business partner Chris Dornin of Dornin Investment Group in October in Orange County Superior Court.

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The Coastal Commission approved Longi’s request for a coastal development permit in August 2017, but Longi and Dornin say they still haven’t received it.

“We’ve been demanding it,” Dornin said. “They will not tell us why they are withholding the permit.”

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Longi said they are awaiting a meeting with Coastal Commission representatives and that a court date in the case has not been set.

Representatives of the commission did not immediately return messages seeking comment.

Dornin said the duo is seeking “well in excess of a million dollars” in punitive damages.

“We’re just these two individuals and we’ve run up against this Goliath that is just unbelievably powerful,” Longi said. “It’s just sad that it’s come to this.”

The current dispute can be traced to 2015, when commissioners first heard Longi’s case.

Commissioners unanimously approved the permit in January that year, but not before having several talks with Longi and his lawyers and failing to file timely disclosures about them. State law requires the commission to disclose any such “ex-parte communications” within seven days of the conversations and before its next hearing on the subject.

According to Longi’s lawsuit, the commissioners filed the disclosures days after the deadline and then backdated many of the documents to appear as though they had been filed on time.

A group called Friends of the Canyon, which opposes Longi’s project, sued, saying the commissioners “abused their discretion in approving the coastal development permit.”

In December 2016, Superior Court Judge Kim Dunning ordered the commission to rehear the case, partly because six of the 10 commissioners had not properly disclosed their private conversations.

The commission held another hearing in August last year and approved Longi’s request for 28 units in two two-story structures — with a condition that he pay the commission’s legal fees from the Friends of the Canyon case.

“They’re just saying, ‘If you want your permit, you need to reimburse us for the fees that we incurred’ as a result of their wrongdoing,” Dornin said. “It’s pure, simple extortion.”

Friends of the Canyon last year filed a Superior Court challenge to the commission’s second approval, and the case is in the pretrial stage, according to Julie Hamilton, attorney for Friends of the Canyon.

Longi first applied for a coastal development permit from the Laguna Beach Planning Commission in 2013. Since then, the project has been roiled in legal battles.

After the Planning Commission and City Council approved permits in 2014, Friends of the Canyon appealed to the Coastal Commission.

The group argued that the project is unfit for the proposed site at 20412 and 20432 Laguna Canyon Road because it would not be “rural and small scale” — requirements of the Laguna Canyon Annexation Area Specific Plan.

“This project is not small scale and rural … by anyone’s definition,” Hamilton said. “It’s urban.”

Longi and Durnin say in their lawsuit that Laguna planning staff confirmed the project conforms to the area specific plan.

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