Variances may be eliminated

One-quarter to two-thirds of the city’s property owners may soon find that existing “non-conforming" elements on their structures are no longer a barrier to improvements.

Legal non-conforming structures are those that do not meet city building standards and presently require a variance. The Planning Commission on Wednesday will consider parking requirements for these properties, the last piece in a revision to the municipal code that would do away with the variance requirement pertaining to existing legal non-conforming structures.

“There are almost 4,000 homes that are less than 1,500 square feet that could be impacted by this change in the code, smaller and older homes whose owners might want to upgrade or enlarge," said Planning Commission Chairwoman Anne Johnson. “Our goal is to preserve the cottages that add so much to Laguna’s charm, which might be scraped or so altered if the owners are required to bring the non-conformities up to code and we could end up looking like Irvine."

In the past, variances have been routinely granted for legal non-conformities that did not affect proposed improvements, a practice recently questioned by some Design Review Board members.


“When Robin Zur Schmiede came on the board, we had projects that required variances for existing legal non-conformities," Board Chairwoman Ilse Lenschow said. “She is an attorney and she questioned the legality of some of the findings. The fact is that in many cases, findings cannot be made for them."

Some board members began to consider asking for non-conforming elements to be removed that were unrelated to a proposed project.

“We were concerned that those unjustified variances might be legally challenged," Lenschow said. “It was a ticking time bomb."

The board asked the city attorney and staff for clarification.


Local architects also clamored for clarification in light of the board’s new direction.

Community Development Director John Montgomery told the board that the variances had been granted for the past 30 or 40 years, provided the new construction was not affected by the non-conformities. Denials had to show a connection to the non-conformity.

The tradition did not sit well with some board members. Montgomery proposed changes in the code that must be vetted by the Planning Commission.

Design Review Task Force Vice Chairman Gene Gratz said the board has taken it upon itself to make policy, which is not in their charter, which Lenschow said was a practice more prevalent in the past.

Gratz also maintains that square footage is not one of the design criteria in the code, although some board members consistently oppose homes over a certain size.

On the other hand, mass and bulk are criteria, Gratz said.

“Talented designers can create projects that are big, but don’t appear to be," Gratz said.

Gratz said the task force is taking steps to suggest that board members be required to make findings that relate their decisions to the city code.


Planning Commissioner Norm Grossman said the commission is taking steps to simplify the code to reflect the history of design changes over the past 40 years.

“Some buildings were made illegal by legislation," Grossman said. “We have a lot more existing non-conforming structures now. A whole slew of structures were made illegal by the redefinition of height in the mansionization ordinances."