Changes considered for second residential units

The Laguna Beach Planning Commission on March 26 reviewed proposed changes to a city law that governs the construction of guest houses and other "second units" behind homes.

Laguna last amended the ordinance in July 2012, when it eliminated the design-review requirement for most second units.

Commissioners this week addressed concerns about the potential for complaints when project designs are not reviewed before construction.

Commissioner Ken Sadler said, for example, that a unit could block a neighbor's established view.

In the past, officials could not refer for guidance to design review hearings for the main house, but commissioners suggested it might be a good idea to consider previous hearing testimony.

"When staff reviews a second residential unit, it would be good if they could look back and say, 'Oh, this was a [neighbor's] major concern,' and take that into account," Sadler said Monday.

Another way commissioners hope to curtail neighborhood disputes is to require a second residential unit to be no higher than the tallest point of the main house.

The added living quarters, whether attached or detached from the main house, can be one story tall. In addition, the highest point can be no more than 12 feet above existing ground level.

Commissioners debated whether placing survey stakes, along with a project description, at the site of a proposed second unit would be beneficial or misleading to the public, leading some people to think a formal public hearing would take place.

Commissioner Anne Johnson favored placing signs at the property to notify the public about design review board decisions and how to obtain design plans.

Planners want the requirements for a second residential unit to be more clearly outlined, which would aid in the appeal process.

Appeals would not go through a public hearing but would instead be handled by staff, City Atty. Phil Kohn said.

In an effort to prevent future headaches, the amended ordinance would prohibit the city from accepting a review application for a second unit unless it is submitted with the main house's application or after it has been approved.

Resident Gary Schwager questioned whether this provision is best.

"I'm theorizing the person has an economic benefit for putting it all together," Schwager said during the meeting. "If you make them wait until after the [main] building is over to start the second building, they might consider it an economic disadvantage not to come to the Design Review Board to get it all at one time."

Staff will modify the proposed ordinance and return it to the commission on April 23.

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