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Council acts on design, plans

The City Council completed a task on the Planning Commission’s To Do List and pared the Design Review Board’s seats to five, among other actions taken at joint meetings Saturday.

Joint meetings, held to review the past year’s accomplishments, set some goals for the upcoming year and air some differences.

Mayor Elizabeth Pearson directed staff on behalf of the council to move forward on parking management in the Downtown Specific Plan area, which Commission Chairwoman Ann Johnson successfully lobbied to have split from the expedited review of the plan, which she said could take a year, optimistically.

“Downtown parking is a roadblock for everyone,” said Sam Goldstein, who recently completed the redevelopment of the Heisler Building on South Coast Highway.

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“It’s a nightmare, and it keeps a lid on everything.”

Parking is non-existent for some buildings in town, which were constructed before the city passed parking requirements and were “grandfathered,” meaning they don’t have to meet current city standards.

Councilman Kelly Boyd asked to have a study of overall parking in the area included in the specific plan review. He also wants the review to consider second-floor additions to commercial buildings downtown.

“I know it is unpopular with some folks, but we need to take a look at second stories,” Boyd said.

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Mayor Pro Tem Toni Iseman has reservations about the kind of uses that would be permitted on the upper stories.

“It is easier to rent residential [space] than commercial space, but we could easily turn downtown into residential and there goes the town,” Iseman said.

Mayor Elizabeth Pearson said downtown residents would add vitality to the business district.

The Downtown Specific Plan was adopted more than 10 years ago. Among the issues that also indicate to Boyd that a revision is needed is the number of vacant stores, and the lack of anchor stores, even if they are chains and resident-serving facilities.

Cutbacks in staff and the long list of projects have delayed revisiting the specific plan.

“That is why I wanted the parking management plan separated,” Johnson said. “The Downtown Specific Plan could take 10 years.”

Design Review Task Force Chairman Matt Lawson said the sooner started, the sooner done.

The council also moved up the amendments to the Artist Live/Work ordinance, which will require a Local Coastal Plan Program amendment approved by the California Coastal Commission.

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“Local rents are above the reach of most artists,” said Goldstein, an art patron and one of the architects of the Business Improvement District, which funds art projects and organizations from contributions by the hostelries in Laguna. “We have to subsidize them. We have to help them financially.”

Goldstein suggested the city own the live-work projects to prevent re-sales to non-artists and increased costs.

“Privately-owned inexpensive housing doesn’t work,” he said.

John Montgomery, director of the Community Development Department, called the proposal problematical and said the staff is in contact with affordable-housing developers.

In another switch, the council demoted the commission review of the Transportation Element, which is in line for a Caltrans grant.

“If we don’t get the grant, we might have to tap into the parking fund,” Montgomery said, eliciting an “Oh, no!” from Pearson, who wants the fund used to build more parking spaces

“We had about 50 public hearings on land use and it probably will be the same thing with transportation, so everyone will have plenty of time to comment,” Commissioner Norm Grossman said.

The intent of the city’s Residential Guidelines were discussed.

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The guidelines were envisioned by some members of the planning commission as a tool to familiarize newcomers to Laguna with procedures and regulations for development, rather than a 125-page document for development professionals.

However, a second, smaller and more user-friendly introductory document may be needed for the general public, they said, which could then refer the reader to the more technical guide.

DESIGN REVIEW BOARD

The meeting with the board picked right up where the commission meeting left off.

“Actions should be in line with policies,” Councilwoman Verna Rollinger said. “I, for one, couldn’t tell you what all the policies are. But I was talking to a friend formerly on the board who came up with documents that were in place when she was on the board that had an index with policies listed by subject.

“I thought it was a terrific idea to update these documents and John [Montgomery] thought it might not be a bad idea.”

Montgomery is already working on it.

Board Vice Chairwoman Caren Luizzi said the board’s biggest problem is the council hearing an appeal of a project that was changed after the board decision.

“If there are changes in a plan it should go back to the board,” Boyd said.

City Atty. Philip Kohn said the council should limit its review of the board’s decision to the specific items listed in the appeal and not consider changes made by the applicant between hearings, nor should the council raise issues not in the appeal.

The board limits hearings on a project to a maximum of three, preferring to keep it to two.

“Fewer hearings make for less contention,“ Lawson said. “The council should be mindful of applicants who do not take advantage of the full set of hearings.”

Applicants who are unwilling to make changes in a proposal or feel a personal bias on the board against them have been known to ask the board to vote on a project after the first hearing, preferring to take their chances with the council

“If there are no flaws [in the process], you must affirm the board’s decision,” said attorney Gene Gratz, who frequently represents applicants appealing a board decision or opponents of the applicants.

“My business almost dried up when appeals declined. The reason appeals are going up is because the council disregards the DRB decision without making findings.”

Findings are legal reasons to support a decision.

“We need to be aware that if it’s my view [impaired] and I didn’t think it was adequately addressed, I have the right to be heard.” Rollinger said.

Additional staff time was also on the agenda, a request by the board.

“The budget is ambiguous and projects are getting more complicated,” said Ken Sadler, board alternate and chairman.

However, City Manager Ken Frank said the zoning division is the only department that didn’t get cuts in the next fiscal budget.

In fact, he “ripped off” a staffer from the Planning Commission to assist the board and he certainly isn’t siphoning off fees.

“We could probably help balance the general fund if we wanted to raise fees,” Frank said.

Montgomery raised the issue of electronic notes taken at the City Hall front counter in an attempt to reduce complaints that every contact gets a different response to questions.

The staff did a trial run with the only program they could find — used in Santa Cruz — and opined that it is off-putting to be inputting while talking to the public, time-consuming and could lead to forcing the public to make appointments.

Many questions can be referred to GIS system, which does not change, Montgomery said.

Lawson and Pearson support the electronic records. Boyd and Rollinger not so much.

“Maybe we are designing a system that is bigger than the problem,” Rollinger said. “It would make me crazy if I asked a question and they are typing while talking to me.”

Board member Leslie LeBon suggested having a simple form with space for the question, which could be filed.

Pearson said four council members want the electronic process explored, but it must be simplified, Councilwoman Jane Egly said.

The final issue on the agenda was the need for an alternate on the board since meetings have been reduced to twice monthly from weekly and shortened.

By consensus the alternate will be eliminated at the next round of appointments.

The joint meetings concluded at noon.

All council and Design Review Board members attended.

Planning Commissioners Robert Whalen and Linda Dietrich were absent.



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