Volume 15, Issue 75  |  September 19, 2023SubscribeAdvertise

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Commission continues request to demolish 1914 cottage, build parking lot by Presbyterian Church


The Planning Commission this week decided to hold off on a decision on a request by the Laguna Presbyterian Church to demolish an unoccupied bungalow cottage built in 1914 and construct and temporarily use the property as a parking lot for private use by the church.

Commissioners voted 5-0 on Wednesday (May 3) to continue an application for a temporary use permit and a coastal development permit for the demolition of an existing structure and the construction and use of a new parking lot at 359 3rd St. The application is slated to return to the commission on July 13.

There was confusion from commissioners on several issues, including: The landscape plan, or lack thereof, and whether or not 11 trees would be removed from the site or the adjacent parcel and how they impact this request; the actual historical status of the building, which was unclear if it had previously held a C-rating or K-rating, and whether they are obliged to consider the entire record of historic assessments under the city’s new and revised historic preservation ordinance and confusion about the demolition and an overall lack of clarity on what they were being asked to approve.

A landscape plan wasn’t included since it’s a TUP not a full conditional use permit application, explained Planning Manager Amber Dobson.

Even though this is a TUP, there is some need to reconfigure landscape so it should have been part of the staff report, said Commission Chair Jorg Dubin. 

“How are we to ensure that the new mystical landscaping project…without seeing a plan for that how are we assured that that’s actually going to happen?” he asked. 

The commission could require it through conditions of approval or continue the item and request that information, Dobson answered. 

“We didn’t feel it was necessary, but obviously we were wrong,” Dobson said, answering a commissioner question about why staff didn’t already request that information.

Commissioner Susan McLintock Whitin proposed the commission continue the item and direct staff to “do a reset” and return with answers to their questions and a more complete report. 

“It seems clear that a landscape plan should have been included with this,” Ed Sauls, commenting on behalf of the church, said after the commissioners commented about continuing the item, which he agreed to and confirmed that they will “clear up” the tree issue. 

Associate Planner Arlen Beck read from the staff report that “the applicant is also requesting 11 of the existing 12 trees be removed in the parking lot at 361 and 363 3rd St., however, this request is only for the parcel at 359 3rd St. and the applicant may submit an application to remove the trees in the parking lot at 361 and 363 3rd St. at a later date.” 

They applied for the removal of those trees, but that wasn’t the item before the commission on Wednesday and it’s not included in the current application, Dobson said, answering a commissioner question about why they are requesting to remove so many trees. 

Staff also noted that there are two new trees proposed to be installed along the area of the new parking spaces.

Commission continues request to demolish parking lot plan

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Rendering courtesy of City of Laguna Beach

A rendering of the proposed site plan for the requested parking lot

“It is a little confusing. They want to remove all the trees and here we are planting (two) more trees,” Whitin said.

Other commissioners agreed that it was unclear in the staff report. 

Branden Sjulin, the applicant for the project on behalf of the church, said there are three trees included in the requested TUP that they would like to remove. It’s specific to those trees due to the root disturbance and heaving of the parking lot, he said. Removing those three trees would allow them to resurface the parking lot so it’s smooth, level and safe to traverse when parking.

In terms of conflict with general plan components, there are policies that consider the issue of neighborhood character and Downtown village character, noted Commissioner Steve Kellenberg, but they weren’t included or mentioned in the staff report. 

The staff report should actually discuss the General Plan elements that relate to neighborhood character – not just historic and cultural – but neighborhood character because it does seem that it is a relevant general plan policy as part of this discussion, Kellenberg said. 

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Requirements for a temporary use permit are that it meets the General Plan policies, Dobson explained.  Commissioners could find that the project is inconsistent with the general plan, she noted. 

There was also some general concern about the demolition portion of the project. 

“I’m concerned that we’re acting on demolition of this structure and I only see one paragraph in the staff report that relates to that,” Whitin said. “I still think it’s murky about the demolition issue.” 

She asked for clarification and reaffirmed that they can’t treat it as a historic structure.

Dobson broke down the project piece by piece: The CDP is the discretionary permit for demolition and the construction of the parking spaces; the TUP is the permit to allow the temporary use as a parking lot. The tree removal is a separate action that would need to return to the commission in a different application.

“It seems like demolition is not very temporary,” Dubin said, “and the use is not really temporary either, it’s going to be a parking lot in perpetuity so I’m a little hazy on (that).”

“Still seems a little foggy to me,” he added. 

There was also some confusion as to why they can’t treat it as a historic structure.

Commission continues request to demolish cottage

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Courtesy of City of Laguna Beach

The cottage at 359 3rd Street proposed to be demolished in order to build a parking lot for the Laguna Presbyterian Church

A bungalow cottage was built in 1914 on the 2,835-square-foot parcel. The property was sold to its current owner, Laguna Presbyterian Church, in 1967.

During the April 21, 2021 Planning Commission meeting, the church publicly declared an objection to the structure being treated as a historic resource and determined that there was a “substantial hardship.”

“Anything that is treated as historic would be a hardship for the church and so they, in a public hearing, made a declaration,” Dobson explained. 

There are very specific limitations on what a city can impose, in terms of zoning and planning, on religious institutions, she noted. By making that declaration, the city, as a government agency, is not supposed to treat that structure as a historic resource according to government code, she said.

Staff believes the cottage doesn’t meet state and national historical register listing eligibility, which is the baseline for the city’s revised historic ordinance, Dobson said.

The references to the historic inventory are no longer relevant to the city’s revised historical ordinance, Dobson said. They believe it was C-rated, but it appears it could have been K-rated, but it’s regardless at this point because it doesn’t meet the eligibility for state or national listing, which is what the revised city ordinance requires. C and K ratings are not in the city’s review anymore, she said.

During public comment, longtime local Ann Christoph, reading a letter from the Laguna Beach Historic Preservation Coalition, noted that documents filled out for the state evaluating the house say it’s a K-rated building and that it qualifies as a listed house under two different categories.

“It’s disconcerting for us to find that our staff doesn’t read the entire evaluation and presents to you that it’s C-rated when that form clearly says it’s a K-rated building,” she said.

She also commented that the revised historic preservation ordinance includes language that obliges the city to consider the building as historic in light of the entire record.

Speaking as an individual (not on behalf of LBHPC), Christoph noted that the church could use the property to address a well-documented social need: Housing.

“As a church, the applicant should be interested in serving the people and this could include restoring this building and making it available for badly needed housing,” she said. “With this proposal we’re trading a housing opportunity for a short row of parking spaces. Not an exemplary priority, especially for a church.”

She re-iterated the importance of the century-old bungalow. 

“This particular house may be the last remaining example of what early Laguna looked like in 100 years ago,” Christoph said. “We should not be getting rid of this. We should be featuring it and telling the story of how Laguna evolved from the small little cottages to what we have today and without these endangered species of buildings we can’t tell that story.”

Resident Jacob Cherub pointed out that it’s a misnomer to call this a temporary solution or short-term use. It’s a permanent action that can’t be undone, he emphasized. 

He also addressed the “elephant in the room” of the negotiations in recent years between the city and the church to build a public parking structure on the property (as well as several adjacent parcels owned by the church).

This current request from the church looks to be strategic, he said, as a way to demolish a dwelling that’s an obstacle to the future parking structure. 

“That’s the dog, this is the tail,” Cherub said. 

A few other speakers commented on the project, all opposed to either removal of the trees or demolition of the building, or both.

Sauls noted that it’s public information regarding the proposed parking structure that might be constructed in the future. There’s no hidden agenda, he said.

This is a temporary use permit because they have not decided the parcel’s ultimate use. If the city continues forward with a parking structure that’s a separate decision, he said. 

Sauls also said they can’t use the cottage in its current state. 

“The structure itself has lead paint and asbestos in the building. We can’t safely use the building,” he said. “It has no purpose and function” 

Answering a commissioner question about whether it’s possible to remediate the lead paint and asbestos issues, Sauls said that’s not in the plans for the church.

“Somebody could do it, but it’s not the church’s business to do that,” due to cost and time, Sauls said. “We’ve made it available for that and we’ve made it available to be moved and it hasn’t come together, so we’d like to move on and do something else that’s a better use.”

Sauls said they offered to provide the building, for free, to neighbors who were considering using it, but it didn’t work out. They tried making it available for other uses, but those also didn’t pan out.

There’s a shortage of parking for the church and they would like to use the space to accommodate more church visitors.

“We’ve been trying to figure out what to do with this for decades,” Sauls said. “The church has decided that the best use of that space is for additional parking so we can have more people come to the church.” 


Sara Hall covers City Hall and is a regular contributor to Stu News Laguna.

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