Inside Design Review: Education is the first step

The Laguna Beach Design Review process has been a mystery to many residents for decades. Most have heard stories about various projects that went awry during Design Review hearings: projects taking years to get approved, neighbors ganging up on unsuspecting applicants, or applicants being told their dream house failed to meet certain criteria. Unfortunately, far too many of these stories are true.

That said, what people don't hear enough about are the successful projects — those that are well-prepared and well-designed. I know about both sides because for many years I was a member of both the DRB and Design Review Task Force.

Now here is what I can tell you from my experiences: The one similarity that failed projects share is a lack of understanding of the Design Review process.

I can also provide this good news: Most projects that come before the DRB are eventually approved. In fact, the best success stories are those created by architects and designers who have a thorough understanding of the process because they have been through it so many times.

Despite such successes, even the most experienced Laguna architect can be challenged by the process, due to its "discretionary" nature. Sometimes board members require more of what they want than guidelines dictate.

Faced with the challenges of the DR process, Laguna Beach residents are often left with two choices: avoid Design Review altogether — and perhaps give up their "dream home" — or try to better understand the process.

The purpose of my regular column is to help you through the Design Review process, either as an applicant or as a concerned neighbor. I want to help you better understand why some projects are approved, why others aren't, and why almost all projects that come before the DRB undergo significant changes.

Here, then, is my first piece of advice to anyone who will soon go through the process: Start by reading the recently adopted "Design Guidelines — A Guide to Residential Development."

This guidebook should help you through all three stages of a project—from initial planning to your first DR hearing to final approval or denial. Its overarching purpose is to bridge what has been a sometimes unfathomable gap between the development standards stated in the municipal code and the discretionary actions taken by the Design Review Board.

As you read the guidebook, note there are 16 criteria every project must meet. These range from Access, Design Articulation and Design Integrity to newly added requirements for "Sustainability" and three of the most contentious — Neighborhood Compatibility, Privacy, and View Equity.

The guidebook ably defines each criterion and offers helpful suggestions on how to apply them—and you should never come before the DRB either as an applicant or neighbor with concerns without having a basic understanding of the applicable criteria.

Importantly, the guidebook also provides an overview of the "entitlement process." While we live in a country that in principle zealously protects property rights, you may be amazed at how many different government bureaucracies want to define (and often truncate) those rights. So read carefully about the city's Zoning Ordinance (Title 25), the Landscape and Scenic Highways Resource document, the State Building Code, State Historical Building code, and the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

As a third contribution, the guidebook also provides a great overview of the Administration process complete with flow charts. It describes a project's path through City Hall — from Zoning Plan Check and DR hearings to Appeals. It also provides a thorough explanation of variances, a particularly confusing item due to their discretionary nature.

Finally, a handy glossary in the back of the guidebook will certainly help any layperson understand the dialogue of building projects in Laguna Beach.

In summary, never go before the DRB without having first read the Design Guidelines cover to cover. It's free on the city's website or you can pick up a bound copy at City Hall for $15. So good luck with your addition or dream home!

LESLIE LEBON is a practicing architect residing in Laguna Beach. Her website is

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