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Laguna council votes to pursue improvements to design review process at testy meeting

Laguna council votes to pursue improvements to design review process at testy meeting
Residents line up to speak Tuesday night about Laguna Beach Councilman Peter Blake’s proposal to pursue improvements to the city’s design review process. Speakers were divided over his suggestion to require all five Design Review Board members to reapply for their positions. (Photo by Faith E. Pinho)

In a heated meeting that included shouting between a council member and members of the public, the Laguna Beach City Council unanimously agreed Tuesday night to take steps intended to improve Laguna Beach’s design review process.

In doing so, it amended a proposal by Councilman Peter Blake that would have opened all five positions on the Design Review Board to competition next month, including those of members Meg Monahan and Caren Liuzzi, whose terms don’t end until March 2020.

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As it stands, the council and the Design Review Board members — Loraine Mullen-Kress, Deborah Neev, Monica Simpson, Monahan and Liuzzi — will meet to discuss ways to improve the process involving the longstanding panel, which reviews development projects in the city.

The meeting is set for Feb. 5, when the council must reappoint or choose replacements for the three volunteer members whose terms expire at the end of March. The meeting will be held an hour before the regular council meeting that day.

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A line of more than 40 residents snaked down the aisle and along the back of the council chamber during Tuesday’s public comment period, which lasted about an hour and a half and ended with several people booing Blake.

“All of you that came up tonight and said that you liked the process or were against my plan are gaming the system by making money off it,” Blake said. “You’re architects, lawyers, consultants.”

A chorus of naysayers interrupted him, causing Mayor Bob Whalen to intervene.

Several people who disapproved of Blake’s plan said it wasn’t fair to ask all Design Review Board members to fight for their seats when two of them are scheduled to serve until 2020.

“I just don’t support the possible jettisoning of two Design Review Board members in the middle of their term,” said Larry Nokes, a partner in the Laguna Beach law firm Nokes & Quinn. “I just think it sets a sort of slippery slope when we start reappointing people after an election.”

Blake, who was elected to the council in November along with fellow newcomer Sue Kempf and longtime incumbent Toni Iseman, made overhauling the Design Review Board and several other city committees a pillar of his campaign. He has called the DRB “insufferable” and said he wants to create new design standards for it to follow to lessen its discretionary power. He also has said he wants term limits for its members.

Other speakers also criticized the board, saying it has treated residents rudely and unfairly and made excessive and costly requirements.

“The Design Review Board has been allowed to become an abusive panel of people that is feared and loathed rather than a board that ensures that the character of the neighborhoods and the city are maintained,” said resident Tim Newman, who said he recently went through the design review process. “Laguna Beach is legendary when it comes to how abusive the design process is. Ask almost anybody in Orange County and they say, ‘Really? You’re going to try to build something in Laguna Beach? Wow.’”

Some critics called for more-rigorous training for Design Review Board members and for limits on the amount of time projects can take for review.

“It takes way too long. It costs way too much. It has what appears to be arbitrary and capricious results,” said Mayor Pro Tem Steve Dicterow. “It needs to be fixed.”

But the board’s defenders said it has dissolved tensions among neighbors and protected ocean views and the character of Laguna Beach. Several said reconfiguring the board now would be disruptive and divisive for the community.

“The Design Review Board has done a good job of balancing interests. I’ve been through the process and it ended up making our neighborhood actually more cohesive,” said Gary Jenkins, though he added that he supports a review of the process.

Johanna Felder, president of Village Laguna — an organization that aims to preserve the city’s historic buildings and downtown — cited a city report from August that said 75.7% of projects before the Design Review Board in 2017 were approved at the first meeting.

Many said that delays in the home development process should not be attributed to design review but to outside contractors and consultants.

“So much of what was said is not true,” Iseman said. “I’m not saying there isn’t a problem, I’m saying design review is not the issue. ... We have demonized members of the community that just care very deeply.”

Kempf, who said she spent the weekend listening to hours of past DRB meetings, suggested several measures, including reassigning some of the board’s workload to the Planning Commission and creating an over-the-counter system for smaller home-improvement projects.

“We need to examine our practices and personnel from start to finish,” Kempf said. “I expect a culture of improvement.”

A tense moment arose early in the public comment period when Blake interrupted longtime resident Arnold Hano, who said Blake’s “wholesale attack” on the board was “way out of hand.”

“How many members of Village Laguna are here tonight?” said Blake, who has claimed that the longstanding organization heavily influences city committees such as the Design Review Board.

“How many from Liberate Laguna?” one woman yelled back. Liberate Laguna is a local political action committee that contributed $12,573 to Blake’s campaign, according to campaign disclosure records.

Iseman later jokingly suggested that Village Laguna members wear armbands to identify themselves at council meetings, drawing laughter from some in the audience.

Whalen, who acted as mediator a few times at the meeting, said the council needs input from city staff and the DRB before making any decisions to overhaul the system.

“It’s very clear from all the testimony that we’ve heard here tonight that there’s a process that needs to be improved, needs to be worked on,” Whalen said. “To me, it’s not the board members. … What you heard is a ton of frustration about even getting to a hearing — too much money, too much time, too many things falling through the cracks.”

Ultimately, Dicterow proposed pursuing improvements without having all five board members compete for reappointment.

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