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Commission comes to citizens’ rescue

Citizens at odds with city-approved development projects have found a friend in the California Coastal Commission.

Increasingly, the commission is taking jurisdiction over individual projects by allowing city-issued permits to be appealed to the commission.

On April 10, the commission decided preemptively that a proposed 6,511-square-foot single-family home at 3 Hillhaven Ranch Way in South Laguna is appealable, even though no permit has been issued by the city for the project. The decision came after the South Laguna Civic Assn. requested a determination on the issue.

“You could say we have found a sympathetic ear,” South Laguna Civic Assn. President Bill Rihn said. “Appeals are a mechanism for us to be heard.”


City Manager Ken Frank agreed that appeals are on the increase — and he doesn’t much like it.

“It doesn’t cost anything to appeal to the commission, so people are doing that rather than paying the fees to appeal to the city,” Frank said. “But it wastes time.”

All of Laguna Beach is located in the California Coastal Zone.

The coastal zone is under the jurisdiction of the commission — except for communities that have a certified Local Coastal Plan, which Laguna does.


Laguna Beach issues its own coastal development permits in all but some areas which are dual-jurisdiction, meaning the commission still has direct oversight along with the city.

The commission has attempted to take jurisdiction over several major developments in the past few years, including one on Mar Vista and an expansion at St. Catherine’s Catholic School, both in South Laguna.

“People have found that the commission and the staff are leaning toward hearing appeals on everything along the coast,” Frank said. “It’s a statewide issue. There are definitely more appeals of both public and private projects. It has gotten ridiculous.”

Project critics are happy that the commission is willing to step in.

“Hillhaven hasn’t even been heard yet by the Design Review Board, so we might appeal it or we might not, depending on what comes out,” Rihn said. “We were pleased that the decision established a precedent here. We saw Hillhaven as an opportunity to get these kinds of projects properly heard and processed.”

Rihn said his board, many individuals and other groups often disagree with the interpretation of state laws by the city manager and Community Development Department Director John Montgomery.

“John and Ken, over and over, keep saying that certain projects are not appealable to the commission or subject to the California Environmental Quality Act,” Rihn said. “Our reading of the California Coastal Act and CEQA say they are.”

The city is frequently at odds with the commission about which projects can be appealed and which cannot.


The city has retained an attorney for some of the coastal projects issues. And at the April 3 meeting the City Council voted to join a new group of coastal cities formed to identify problems of mutual interest and to develop ways to address and remedy them.

On Hillhaven and other projects, commission staff has noted that the Post Local Coastal Plan Certification Permit and Appeal Jurisdiction, City of Laguna Beach Map — generally shortened to “post-cert map” — states that the map may not include all land over which the commission retains jurisdiction for coastal development permits and appeals.

That is a gray area that project opponents have successfully exploited.

Rihn’s formal written request for an opinion by the city on the appealability of the Hillhaven project forced Montgomery to seek a commission ruling despite the Planning Department’s opinion that the project was not subject to commission jurisdiction.

The city’s position opposing the commission jurisdiction was based on the map adopted by the commission for the city on Sept. 16, 2003. That map shows the Hillhaven project on land that is not within 100 feet of a stream or an otherwise appealable location, which presumably would render it subject to appeal.

However, the coastal commission executive director decided the proposed development is next to a drainage course, even though it does not appear on the map.

The staff recommendation reads: “Given the location of the proposed project and the city’s current fuel modification requirements, it is staff’s opinion that the proposed project would result in the removal of native vegetation/habitat, some or all of which may be deemed environmentally sensitive habitat area.”

Aliso Lots, formerly known as the Driftwood Estates, could face the same hurdle. The city Planning Commission ruled during lengthy entitlement hearings for a now-abandoned project on the site that a drainage course no longer existed, a decision opposed by neighbors.


Frank complains that the commission is too focused on individual projects to act on broader issues.

For example, a city request for an amendment to its Local Coastal Program changing fuel modification provisions in the Land Use Plan and permit processing in the Implementation Plan has been delayed for up to a year by a special commission vote, which on April 10 approved the extension of commission’s deadline of 90 days to take action on the city’s submittal.

“The commission is not performing its job,” Frank said. “It is burdening itself with minutia and not getting to major amendments to the coastal plans, like ours.

“Hillhaven is a single-family home — big but it is on a big lot — an existing lot on the inland side of the highway, not on the coast, not even within walking distance of the coast. And people forget that the whole upper portion of Hillhaven was dedicated to open space. In fact, the city has bought a lot more open space, with the Coastal Conservancy and by itself, than this silly house takes up.”

Frank estimated that approval of the proposed amendments to the city’s coastal plan could take anywhere from six months to a year.

In the meantime, he said, the city will implement the requested changes to Downtown Specific Plan policies on in-lieu parking requirements, building height and fuel modification provisions, among other measures, without waiting for Coastal Commission approval.


Should the California Coastal Commission take preemptive appeals of proposed development projects? Write us at P.O. Box 248, Laguna Beach, CA, 92652, e-mail us at or fax us at 494-8979. Please give your name and tell us your home address and phone number for verification purposes only.