Zoning changes debated

The vote still isn’t in, but the Planning Commission is closer to approving an amendment to the zoning code that would eliminate the variance requirement for legal non-conforming elements on residential structures.

After rigorous — sometimes heated — debate Wednesday, the Planning Commission settled on wording for an amendment, most of which was proposed by Laguna Beach architect Kirk Saunders, based on a previous version written by Development Director John Montgomery. The amendment, including a couple of changes made Wednesday by commissioners, will be tweaked by Montgomery and brought back to the commission for review at the first meeting in September.

“We did not have unanimous agreement, but we are moving toward consensus,” said Commissioner Norm Grossman.

Montgomery supported Saunder’s version of the amendment.


“It flows a little better, but it says the same thing,” Montgomery said.

The wording agreed upon Wednesday dropped a requirement in Montgomery’s version that limited expansion of a legal non-conforming residential structure to less than 50% of the gross floor area without bringing the building into compliance with the zoning code. The commission also reduced from 1,800 square feet to 1,500 square feet the size of an expanded structure that does not require parking to be brought up to code.

Wording was added to the Saunders version providing for enlargement or expansion as long as no portion of the non-conforming element of the structure is substantially remodeled or modified. In other words don’t mess too much with the non-conformity and still expect to be exempt from bringing it up to code.

The commission’s primary goal for amending the zoning code is to get rid of the variance requirement for legal non-conforming elements because legal justifications cannot be made for them.


A second goal is to protect the charming cottages that add character to a neighborhood, considered by Commission Chairwoman Anne Johnson to be of equal importance.

“We are leaving that up to the Design Review Board,” Grossman said.

It is proposed that any addition of square footage of more than 10% will be publicly noticed and reviewed by the board.

“Reducing the threshold [for review] to 1,500 square feet was a good decision,” Ann Christoph said. “And so was keeping design review and noticing on legal non-conforming projects.

They may not need a variance, but that doesn’t mean they will get approved.”

Johnson believes that previously granted variances were rights that the city should be cautious about rescinding.

Many of the structures were made non-conforming by changes in the building and zoning codes and only then required variances.

Still to be resolved: non-conforming parking.


Christoph, writing on behalf of Village Laguna, raised the question of a minimum number of off-street parking spaces.

Parking requirements will be discussed at the September meeting.