Commission splits on building height regulation

Planning Commissioners agreed Wednesday that the readoption of the 36-foot maximum building height regulation was redundant, but three of them said if it makes people happy, they would vote for it.

Mayor Pro Tem Verna Rollinger requested the amendment to acknowledge the seminal effort by residents to preserve the village character of Laguna Beach. The commission is required by law to review changes to the city code before the council can take action.

"I see this as form, not as a substantive issue," City Attorney Philip Kohn told the commission. "Staff believes the limit is already in place."

The broadly stated restriction had been eliminated from the code when building heights for all zones were established in the city's mansionization ordinance.

"It has been said that [readoption] is unnecessary, but the very fact that we are discussing it for a second time is proof that it is not a trivial matter," Barbara Metzger said.

The hearing on the proposed amendment had been continued from the Aug. 15 meeting, at which only three commissioners were present. Johnson opined that amendment should be heard by the full commission, with the city attorney present.

Johnson and Commissioner Linda Dietrich voted against the amendment, which Johnson said would have an adverse effect on the development of artist work/live projects and senior and affordable housing. Besides which, height limits are already covered in the code by zone, many of them more restrictive than 36 feet.

"I voted against it because this legislation was redundant," Johnson said. "And furthermore, I am concerned that it precludes development in the M-1a and b industrial zones, where more dense work/live zones could be built."

Where land is limited, projects must go up to pencil out, attorney Larry Nokes said.

Projects such as the expansion of the Laguna College of Art & Design or senior housing behind Mission Hospital would be dead in the water if the 36-foot limit were rigidly enforced, Nokes opined.

However, the code does allow for variances, if findings can be made.

"The idea of 'helping the poor' by supporting affordable housing is a seductive notion, but doing it by allowing variances for the 36-foot building limit brings to mind cliché after unfortunate cliche: Trojan horse, unintended consequences, slippery slope and toe in the door," said Rosemary Boyd, a 45-year resident. "Imagine a future Planning Commission, Design Review Board and City Council with less open ears and good intentions than yours using granted variances as a wedge to open Laguna back up to higher commercial buildings.

"Let's not go down this slippery slope."

Commissioner Rob Zur Schmiede said a regular funding source would be more a effective way than increasing height limits to create affordable or senior housing.

The commission's vetting of the height limit amendment will be presented to the City Council, which must approve it for readoption.

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