Building height limit remains at issue in Laguna Beach

A debate continues as Laguna Beach considers the implications of re-adopting a citywide building height limit.

The Planning Commission discussed reinstating the 36-foot maximum building height ordinance during its Aug. 15 meeting. The item was continued to the following meeting at the request of Commissioner Anne Johnson and because there were only three commissioners in attendance.

Mayor Pro Tem Verna Rollinger said this week that she's in favor of the limit as it would maintain Laguna's "village" quality, but Johnson questioned whether the revision would push working-class people out of the city.

The city needs low-income, affordable or senior housing, and the commission ought to give it more thought before approving the height limit, Johnson said.

"People like me could never live here now," said Johnson, a retired schoolteacher. "I'm not saying the 36-foot height limit is the only reason for that, but we need to find a way to make a mix of people in this town."

Commissioner Robert Zur Schmiede said he is open to discussing affordable housing, but didn't see why the ordinance couldn't be moved forward.

If it were approved, affordable housing developers could apply for a variance if needed, Planning Manager Ann Larson noted. But both Larson and Johnson agreed that variances aren't easy to get.

This week, Rollinger recalled her involvement in the height ordinance's initial adoption in 1971.

Height limits first became an issue to residents because the city was considering a new zone that would allow high-rise hotels along the coast, she said.

Rollinger and other residents gathered signatures in a matter of weeks for an initiative on the local ballot. It was approved with 75% support, she said.

But in 2008, the height limit was removed from the Municipal Code because each city zone had its own maximum height limit, many of which were under 36 feet already, according to a staff report.

Now, for ease of accessibility in the code and because it was approved by the electorate, Rollinger wants to maintain it.

The code would stipulate that no building can exceed 36 feet in elevation at its highest point, according to city documents.

If those specific words aren't in the code, Rollinger said, that could lead to people "monkeying" around in the various city zones.

"I agree that affordable housing is a very serious issue in Laguna Beach," she said, referring to Johnson's remarks at the meeting. "I do not believe that allowing a few more feet in height on a building is going to induce anybody to do an affordable project. I personally believe there should be no exceptions and no variances from the 36-foot height limit that was voted on 40 years ago."

Rollinger said Laguna needs to stay a "village," and that means no high-rises.

"That height limit is a big reason Laguna Beach looks the way it is today — because we don't have tall buildings," she said.

While Rollinger said the height limit is important to the integrity of the city, Johnson contended the revision could push out a population integral to the city: its artists.

"We're losing our artists. They can't afford to live in town," Johnson said in an interview this week. "We're losing a whole big fabric in the community."

The item will be discussed again at the Sept. 12 Planning Commission meeting.

joanna.clay@latimes.com

Twitter: @joannaclay

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