Joint city meeting addresses hot-button issues

Talk of aesthetics within Laguna Beach composed a bulk of Saturday morning’s joint public meeting of the City Council, Planning Commission and Design Review Board inside the Susi Q Community Center.

The 2 1/2-hour meeting was split into two portions, with council members staying for both segments.


Community Development Director John Montgomery presented projects underway and possible future topics the City Council and/or Planning Commission would consider in the coming months during the first portion of the joint meeting.

Questions surfaced on the future makeup of the Laguna Canyon Road corridor, and how certain projects factor into potential planning — including a possible amendment to the Downtown Specific Plan and the Village Entrance.


On April 3 the Planning Commission will resume its series of public workshops on the Downtown Specific Plan, focusing on “village character” and “view preservation.” Future workshops this spring will include discussions on housing, parking, circulation and public transit. The California Department of Transportation awarded the city a grant for $180,000, matched by $20,000 in city funds, to hire a professional consultant to help the city implement a complete streets model.

The model is supposed to create less traffic congestion while providing safe mobility for motorists, bicyclists, pedestrians and transit riders, the Caltrans’ website said. It also strives to create more walkable communities with greater transportation options for residents.

Planning Commissioner Anne Johnson suggested some of the Downtown Specific Plan elements could be combined with possible alterations within the Laguna Canyon Road corridor.

“We’ve got to have more parking, more centralized parking,” Johnson said.


The goal of the Village Entrance project is to improve the look and feel for visitors approaching the city along Laguna Canyon Road. The area includes the Sawdust Festival and Lumberyard and Forest Avenue parking lots.

Proposed plans call for an urban and linear pedestrian park, and replacing and increasing displaced parking. Councilwomen Elizabeth Pearson and Toni Iseman have formed a subcommittee and directed staff to review suggestions. Pearson, a three-time Laguna Beach mayor, and Iseman will present their findings at a special City Council meeting at 5 p.m. March 26 in Council Chambers.

The Village Entrance is 18 years in the making, Pearson told colleagues.

The push to make Laguna Canyon Road a state scenic highway has been put on hold pending completion of an updated Landscape and Scenic Highways Resource document, according to the joint meeting agenda. The City Council’s adopted budget for the 2012-13 fiscal year included hiring a consultant for $120,000 to update the document, which contains policies and landscape/maintenance design guidelines relating to view preservation, tree maintenance, scenic highways, invasive plants and neighborhood landscape character.


“Laguna Canyon Road is a difficult issue,” Montgomery said. “You have issues dealing with congestion and traffic. The question of, ‘What should we do to improve it?’ Make it four lanes?”

After a 10-minute break, Design Review Board Chairwoman Robin Zur Schmiede called for greater Design Review Board authority in making decisions, particularly with enforcing and suggesting landscape regulations with residents.

An area of contention is landscaping and view blockage from dense, overgrown plants, including hedges, Zur Schmiede said.

“We’re not talking about one tall tree,” she said.

Hedges can grow taller than the height of a fence as long as they don’t impact the neighbors’ view or pose a safety hazard, Zur Schmiede quoted the city’s municipal code.

She listed plants that can pose problems.

“Podocarpus and Carolina Cherries are all trees. People plant them next to one another to create a hedge, which can get 25 to 30 feet tall,” Zur Schmiede said.

“Under current interpretation of the [city’s] code, we cannot address view impacts unless the project before us is: a new development, additions are more than 50% of the original floor area [meaning square footage], creates an upper story, or exceeds 15 feet above adjacent ground level structures within environmentally-sensitive areas,” according to a typed one-page note Zur Schmiede brought to the meeting.

“I wish the code was drafted in a way that applied more broadly,” Zur Schmiede said by phone after the meeting Saturday. “What I heard is if we are going to do anymore, then we must tell [council members] what the issues are.”

Zur Schmiede also said the Design Review Board will make plans to meet with the View Preservation Committee, led by Mayor Kelly Boyd, to discuss potential improvements or changes to the View Preservation Ordinance. Boyd said during Saturday’s meeting that the committee plans to present its findings at the second City Council meeting in May.

“There is strength to what Robin is saying,” Councilman Steve Dicterow said. "[Whatever] you decide, it needs to come out of the View Preservation Ordinance. I also care about not destroying living things.”

Twitter: @AldertonBryce