Testimony by a team of highly regarded professionals assembled by designer-builder Gregg Abel convinced a council majority March 23 to approve a retaining wall in a blufftop setback and the variance needed to make it legal.
The council’s 3-2 vote overturned the Design Review Board’s unanimous decision that the proposed retaining wall was not needed to prevent soil erosion on a Three Arch Bay oceanfront parcel or to protect the safety of people using the beach access next to it.
The variance required legal justifications for construction of the wall in the setback and to raise the grade of the side yard adjacent to the wall. The votes for and against the project and the variance were based on information not presented to the board and no one on the council was completely at ease with the process.
“I can only speculate what the board would have done if it saw what we are seeing, but I would be more comfortable if they saw it,” said Councilwoman Verna Rollinger, who voted against the approval.
Rollinger said information presented at the meeting was compelling, and it would have been easy to move the project forward, but she feared a precedent would be set and not a good one.
Mayor Pro Tem Toni Iseman, who also voted against the project, and Councilwoman Jane Egly and Mayor Elizabeth Pearson, who voted for it, also expressed concern that the board was not privy to information provided to the council.
However, Pearson said she could make the required findings for the variance — a unique site, a property right enjoyed by others, protection of public safety and of no detriment to others — after hearing the testimony of geologist Hannes Richter, who worked with the city on the restructuring of the Bluebird Canyon landslide.
“I trust Hannes’ judgment implicitly,” Pearson said. “And I believe there is a public safety issue. Hundreds of people use that staircase and I don’t think plants will hold up that slope.”
Besides Richter, the professionals brought to the meeting by Abel included former Design Review Board member Steve Kawaratani, civil engineer Neno Grguric and former Mayor and landscape architect Ann Christoph.
“I was asked to address the plants at the top of the slope and the ivy that was mostly gone before I arrived on the scene,” Christoph said. “The property owners are replacing it with native and drought tolerant plants that I would have recommended if I had been called in for a plan.
“Ivy is not a feasible answer to the slope problem. It needs a structure.”
Rollinger asked if Christoph would be hired as the landscape designer.
“Yes,” burst out Kawaratani, later confirmed by the property owner.
“I asked about Ann because I am confident in her abilities,” Rollinger said.
The project was opposed by Three Arch Bay residents who supported the Design Review Board’s opinion that no significant safety factor had been demonstrated. Board members also felt that overwatering of an adjacent garden area was likely contributing to the erosion and suggested that the problem could be solved if ivy was allowed to re-vegetate the property.
“There is evidence that over-watering has been significant,” project opponent Jim Cushing said.
But George Kimer said he has seen property owner Susan Gertmenian using a watering can to irrigate her plants and had observed no signs of over-watering.
Gertmenian said the project has the support of neighbors and supplied the names of 50 of them.
Daidre McCredie struck back with petitions signed by more than 100 people she said feared the variance for intrusion into the blufftop setback would be precedent setting.
Kathleen Dahlquist read a letter from Michael Kinsman, a South Laguna businessman and resident of Three Arch Bay opposing the project. The letter said that variances should be limited and approved only if legal findings could be made.
Councilman Kelly Boyd could find no mention of the project under review, only references to variances and mansion building.
“I wouldn’t have signed it,” Boyd said. “Personally, I really do not like to get into variances unless they are absolutely necessary, and I like to stick with the Design Review Board — we chose them. But I heard some interesting things from the professionals sitting here, and I visited the site. When I touched the soil, it crumbled.”
The Gertmenian property is on property that is not included in the certified Local Coastal Program and the project must be submitted to the California Coastal Commission for approval.