Proposal to dismantle Design Review Board packs City Council chamber, community activists speak out

By BARBARA DIAMOND

Peter Blake’s proposal to terminate the terms of two appointed Design Review Board members was rejected at Tuesday’s City Council meeting. 

The council did approve a special meeting to be held February 5 to gather input from all five current board members on the pros and cons of the process, as proposed by Blake. 

A 5-0 vote on a portion of Blake’s recommendations came at the end of a two-hour, occasionally raucous hearing, during which 46 speakers from the near-capacity audience went to the rostrum to testify for and against his proposals.

“I feel like my hearing has been hijacked,” said an irate Blake at the conclusion of public testimony. “I represent the people who are at home, not the political activists here tonight.”

He was referring to Village Laguna, his bete noire, but presumably Blake also included as activists the 20 speakers who supported his proposal to vacate the sitting members of the board.

Laguna has always been noted for its community participation in governance, which includes public perusal of proposed council actions as well as monitoring and serving on committees, board and commissions.

Blake made it clear at the meeting and in emails that the Design Review Board was just the first target in his campaign to revamp city processes and policies with which he disagrees. He announced that he and the people who elected him will also take on the Planning Commission, the Heritage Committee and City Hall.

In introducing his agenda item at the meeting, Blake said Design Review Board members are making decisions they shouldn’t be making. 

Lorna Shaw found it ironic that Blake would seek input from the very board members he finds inadequate.

However, many of the speakers pointed to the costs and delays in getting a project heard by the board, rather than the membership, as faulty. 

Cindy Shopoff, a major financial backer of Blake in the November election, testified that it took her six years to build their home and the experience was not unique. 

“I made up a list of people who went through DRB and most were not exactly pleased,” she said. 

That was countered by information in a letter from Village Laguna President Johanna Felder to the council members, recalling a joint meeting at which a chart was produced that showed in 2017 75.7 percent of all projects were approved on the first hearing and 4.9 percent were eventually rejected.

Councilwoman Toni Iseman said the board is being blamed for conditions outside of their control, referring to Design Review as the caboose in the process.

Architect Marshall Ininns lamented over costly delays too.

“My clients are spending thousands of dollars before the project gets to the board,” said architect Marshall Ininns, whose plan for the Coast Inn property was rejected. ”If architects present a reasonable project, they should have a reasonable chance to be approved. I want a reset.”

Blake and the political action committee that backed and funded his campaign targeted Village Laguna as principal contributors to what he considers the stagnation of the city’s growth. 

Sam Goldstein and Michael Ray were major contributors to the Liberate Laguna PAC that supported Blake and Councilwoman Sue Kempf and opposed Iseman, who was endorsed by Village Laguna in the election.

His message resonated particularly with residents philosophically opposed to Village Laguna, as well as the PAC that supported wholesale reformation.

Although opposed to removing members of the board before their terms ended, some Village Laguna members, including past president Gary Jenkins, supported Blake’s proposal to review the process.

“If anything came out of the last election, it was that there is a problem here,” said 2018 council candidate Ann Christoph, who also was endorsed by Village Laguna. “It is frustrating to me how long it takes to get a project to the board.” 

Kempf proposed some less draconian measures than Blake’s dismantling of the board to improve the process.

She recommended taking some of the workload off of the board and transferring some responsibilities to other bodies. 

Kempf suggested reassigning fuel modification zones and the review of all commercial projects to the Planning Commission on which she served for four years, and putting Public Works in charge of beach access and street ends. 

“Overall, I think we collectively do a decent job, but we have plenty of room for improvement,” said Kempf.

Suggestions from the speakers included better training for incoming board members and more oversight by the City Council.

Despite its checkered approval rating, the city is better off with the board than without it, said architect Morris Skenderian, who has participated in about 1,000 DRB meetings. 

“We are not Newport Beach or Dana Point and proud of it,” he wrote in a letter. “Neither of these cities has a design review process per se and the results are obvious.”