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Judge sends Laguna artist live-work project back to Coastal Commission

The California Coastal Commission will rehear a proposal for 30 artist work/live units in Laguna Beach, an Orange County Superior Court judge decided Thursday.

Judge Kim Dunning, who in September ruled that the commission erred when it approved the project plan submitted by sculptor Louis Longi and business partner Chris Dornin, essentially gave the two men the new trial they sought.

Attorney Allan Cooper, who represents Longi and Dornin, in arguing for a new trial, claimed in previous court filings that Dunning usurped the Coastal Commission’s role and conducted her own investigation instead of accepting evidence presented to the commissioners.

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In her September ruling, Dunning said the commission had failed to prove that plans for the .84-acre complex would satisfy requirements for the setback from Laguna Canyon Creek. This point involved differing interpretations of whether the creek was on the state’s major watershed drainage course map and therefore required a greater setback than standard rules.

Dunning’s decision Thursday also hinged in large part on something she mentioned in her September ruling — that six of the 10 commissioners who voted for the project improperly disclosed private communications with developers.

The issue of so-called ex-parte contacts that occur outside official public meetings between coastal commissioners and parties that have a stake in the outcome of a decision has been dogging the commission for months.

The commission approved the project, which calls for two, two-story buildings on two lots, at 20412 and 20432 Laguna Canyon Road, in a January 2015 hearing, nine months after the Laguna Beach City Council gave the OK on a 3-2 vote.

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The hearing was sparked by three separate appeals from residents who alleged that the facility, which would encompass 17,242-square-feet of indoor space that would allow artists to reside and work near their living area, would harm environmentally sensitive areas and violate the Laguna Canyon Annexation Area Specific Plan, which calls for development in the canyon to be rural and small scale.

Longi altered the design several times to include pitched roof lines and larger setbacks from Laguna Canyon Road after residents and planning commissioners raised concerns about the facility clashing with the surrounding neighborhood and hillsides.

In March 2015, a group of residents called Friends of the Canyon sued the commission over its decision two months earlier.

Cooper focused some of his arguments Thursday on the last paragraph of Dunning’s September ruling, which he said was “vague” in its directive at that time.

“If there were nothing else, the violation of [California] Public Resources Code section 30328 would entitle petitioner to a writ of mandate ‘requiring the commission to revoke its action and rehear the matter,’” Dunning wrote. “However, a rehearing would appear to be an idle act in this instance; the commission’s finding that the project is consistent with the applicable [local coastal program] is not supported by substantial evidence as to the setback and rural/small-scale issues.”

“The Coastal Act is clear what you are obligated to do ... void the hearing and hold a new hearing,” Cooper said.

Dunning replied: “I specifically asked counsel present [in July], ‘What do we want to do with this?’ If that was the only issue, not having enough votes [meaning the ex parte issue], we would be on your side of the aisle.”

Julie Hamilton, attorney for Friends of the Canyon, told Dunning she was satisfied with a new hearing.

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“The appeals are out there and need to be resolved,” Hamilton told Dunning.

Cooper said commissioners at a future hearing should not be bound by evidence Dunning used in her September ruling regarding the January 2015 hearing.

Hamilton said the more evidence the better.

bryce.alderton@latimes.com

Twitter: @AldertonBryce


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