Sculptor says his live-work project would benefit environment

A proposed 30-unit, live-work space for artists in the canyon would provide environmental benefits, according to the sculptor who wants permission to build the development.

Louis Longi said his project would include a way to capture storm water runoff from Laguna Canyon Road before it reaches Laguna Canyon Creek, which borders the eastern edge of his property.

Plans call for several bioswales — ground depressions where water would gently seep into the soil and be filtered before it runs into the stream — surrounding the two, two-story buildings. The buildings would span 11,000 and 7,000 square feet, respectively.

Peer-reviewed studies from geologists, biologists and water-quality engineers — filed with the city — show that the project meets environmental and zoning requirements. Nevertheless, opposition has been strong from those who believe it will change the rural, low-density nature of canyon life and potentially add traffic and pollution.

The project's fate rests with the Laguna Beach City Council, which will vote to affirm or deny an appeal from John Albritton, president of the Laguna Canyon Property Owners Assn., at a future public hearing.

The Planning Commission voted 3 to 2 in favor of the project Jan. 8, but the vote was appealed to the council.

Albritton, who has lived in the nearby Sun Valley neighborhood for 25 years, says the project would double the neighborhood's population and is in stark contrast to the specific plan that canyon residents drafted more than 20 years ago.

That plan, he explained, emphasizes that buildings and homes maintain the area's small-scale, rural character.

The two parcels, at 20412 and 20432 Laguna Canyon Road, respectively, sit near the Canyon Animal Hospital and Laguna Koi Ponds and are zoned for light industrial uses, including mixed live-work spaces. The proposed 36-foot buildings also meet the city's height and flood requirements.

Resident: Out of character with plan

Albritton said the development violates the intent of the Laguna Canyon Annexation Area Specific Plan.

"We consider light industrial as one [family] working out of a home," Albritton said. "This is exaggerated beyond anything allowed."

It was difficult for canyon residents to work out of their homes at the time the specific plan was written, thus allowances were made, Albritton said.

Longi said he purchased the property in 2008 from John Hamil, former owner of Canyon Animal Hospital, for $1.65 million.

Hamil, vice president of the Laguna Canyon Property Owners Assn., also opposes the project, saying in a letter to the City Council, "Our specific plan's intent was to support artist live-work by including the rural home occupation portion of the plan, not by building a 30-unit apartment building."

Longi responded, "I would never have bought the land if I knew [Hamil] would oppose me."

Hamil and Albritton said they have nothing against artists, just the project's scale.

"Our neighborhood, which includes many successful artists, supported this land use when the applicant came to us with his plan for approximately eight units," Hamil said in his letter.

"If building an eight-unit development on this property is not economically feasible, maybe this huge project could be located on the large property on the east side of Laguna Canyon Road at Big Bend. The depth of that property and the line of sight on Laguna Canyon Road would make a building of this size, mass and density much less obtrusive."

The city, in a staff report for the Jan. 8 Planning Commission meeting, said Longi and architect Horst Noppenberger altered the project to reduce the appearance of mass and scale by designing pitched rooflines to provide spaces to see the nearby ridgeline, trees that will shield the structure from view and ground cover that will allow rain runoff to seep into the soil instead of flowing into Laguna Canyon Creek.

Eight of the units would be reserved for low-income artists, per federal and state guidelines, while the remaining 22 will be "economical" for tenants, Longi said.

He estimated the average monthly rent for a 500-square-foot living studio would be $1,300 to $1,400.

Longi would demolish his current single-family home on the property and live in one of the units.

Pedestrians walking along Laguna Canyon Road near his home are rare, Longi said, adding that motorists should be looking at the road, not the surrounding hillsides while driving.

"Everyone says I'm blocking view lines, but there is nothing in the [municipal] code that says I can't block a ridgeline at 45 mph for one second," Longi said. "There's no walking path, no sidewalk or gathering point to sit and look [at the hillside]."


Some environmental considerations

Since artists would live and work on site, they wouldn't need to commute, thus traffic would not increase on Laguna Canyon Road, said Longi, who has lived in Laguna Beach for 16 years.

As for runoff from the roadway, Longi, who has worked as an artist for 28 years, plans to level the slope where the road's edge meets a private, hard-packed dirt parking lot from 18 to 3 degrees to reduce the speed at which water flows during a storm.

When it rains, unfiltered runoff from Laguna Canyon Road travels across the lot and into the creek.

That runoff would potentially flow into the bioswales, which Longi said would be made with sand or gravel and include grasses or other plants.

"Road runoff is only damaging if it gets into a water source," Longi said.

To help water flow more smoothly in the creek, Longi plans to remove five, nonnative palm trees along the creek that currently hinder flow, but will keep the existing willows.

An independent biologist assessed the property in July and determined the project would not significantly disrupt the native habitat or species that call the creek home, such as mosquitofish and red swamp crawfish.

"The project proponent intends to avoid existing riparian vegetation and will be enhancing areas presently dominated by nonnative, invasive species along the creek banks with native species," biologist Kevin Livergood wrote in a letter to the city last August.

Livergood works for Lake Forest-based Glenn Lukos Associates Inc.

"The proposed project is not expected to result in significant impacts to biological resources," Livergood wrote. "The canopy of select willow trees may occur at or near the limits of the 25-foot setback. Minimal trimming may be required to accommodate initial construction operations. However, the complete removal of trees is not expected. The final project design intents to retain the trees for their habitat and aesthetic values."

Longi said he will also set rules for tenants to ameliorate any effect on the Sun Valley neighborhood.

Three allowable allowable events at the site would be invitation-only private gatherings for artists to showcase their work, and Longi questions whether that many would actually occur.

"I usually do one show a year," he said. "So much energy goes into doing one show. There's the promotion and handling [reservations]. They won't be [with the same frequency as First Thursdays Art Walk]."

The Art Walk is held the first Thursday of each month and is an opportunity for the public to check out artists' work in town.

The wait from the Planning Commission decision in January to the eventual appeal hearing has been difficult for Longi, who has put many hours into the project.

"It's heart-wrenching," Longi said, "To know that I have good intentions and want what is good for the community, it's hard to swallow. I'm an artist, first and foremost. It's my calling. To hear all the negative rhetoric. It's not true."

The council has four options when it rules on the project at the hearing, City Atty. Phil Kohn wrote in an email:

• Approve the project, as is;

•Approve the project with modifications suggested by the Planning Commission;

•Send the project back to the Planning Commission with instructions;

•Deny the project.

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