Hansen: Fighting over some seashells

On Tuesday, Gina Marie Harris will hold her breath in front of the Laguna Beach City Council, not knowing exactly what to expect.

It should not be this way.

Harris is trying to open a small interior design and retail shop in Laguna Beach at the corner of Beach Street and Ocean Avenue that was given a unanimous green light by the Planning Commission on April 27.

But now things have gotten more complicated.

A few competitors basically were caught flat-footed and complained that there wasn't enough review of the details, so they filed an appeal on May 11.

Here's where the seashells come in.

The downtown business district operates largely under a 138-page document called the Downtown Specific Plan, first adopted in 1989 and modified a few times over the years. It's a typical planning document that stipulates everything from parking to the "village character."

But what "character" is exactly is sometimes up for debate.

Mayor Toni Iseman, who did not want to talk specifically about the Harris proposal because it will come up for the vote Tuesday, said in general that the downtown plan is designed to prevent too many "T-shirts and cookies," a reference to the tacky tourist shops that litter many seaside resorts.

So what does all this mean to Harris and her high-end home interior shop?

In an effort to broker a deal between the five competing stores and Harris, Iseman facilitated an informal coffee the day before the appeal.

The meeting did not go particularly well. Harris felt bullied. The competitors, according to documents, were frustrated that Harris did not have to submit more detailed plans with her application, so they could not evaluate whether her store passed the "character" test.

Harris said she submitted about 25 pages with her conditional use permit and followed all the rules.

Meanwhile, Iseman ended up leaving the coffee meeting midway, realizing that the discussion was going south.

"They said no shells and candles," Harris said, flabbergasted at the level of minutia.

After the meeting, there was a flurry of long e-mails that involved all the parties, the City Council members, the city planning department, and even attorneys and related advisors.

Trust me when I say it was not the most efficient use of government resources.

While admitting she should have handled some things differently, Harris said it's been a month of behind-the-scenes wrangling, miscommunication and frustration that has slowly descended into a steady spiral of bitterness.

"I am so mentally exhausted," Harris said. "I am having trouble sleeping; I am so stressed."

At a time when the city is trying to improve its image through the "Open for Business" initiative, this type of scenario obviously is counterproductive.

Hindsight being what it is, there were a couple of problems here:

One: The competitors, if they were that concerned, should have done their homework and been more prepared for the Planning Commission meeting. The item was properly posted and on the consent calendar — meaning that it was considered a minor, routine issue — so they did not have a chance to comment on it.

Two: While well-intentioned, the coffee meeting probably was a bad idea. It was outside the bounds of transparency that a good process should follow. When there is conflict, backroom dealings usually don't work, especially when one party feels outnumbered.

Three: Seashells … really?

The appeal was filed by Mark Christy, and the competitors who signed it (Tuvalu, Trove, Laguna Colony Co., A. Tesselaar, and Stephen Frank Garden and Home) seem to be protecting turf and also trying to minimize the saturation of similar shops. I would probably do the same thing if I were in their shoes.

But the downtown plan is not in jeopardy here. The space that Harris is trying to fill was a questionable vitamin store that seemingly lasted about three days.

We have more serious tenancy and quality issues in downtown to be fighting over this.

DAVID HANSEN is a writer and Laguna Beach resident. He can be reached at davidhansen@yahoo.com.

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