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Volume 15, Issue 45  | June 6, 2023Subscribe

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Council approves bluff overlay district, clarifies definition of major remodel


City Council last week approved a bluff overlay district aimed at clarifying oceanfront development regulations.

Councilmembers voted 4-1 on March 7 in support of an ordinance that amends portions of the Laguna Beach municipal code relating to the regulation of oceanfront development with the establishment of a bluff overlay district. The action also defined methodologies for calculating major remodels. Councilmember George Weiss was the dissenting vote.

Most of last week’s discussion centered on the new bluff overlay district, which will enact new oceanfront development standards that are responsive to the constraints of the city’s unique coastal landforms and site-specific conditions. 

This will create a system to help accomplish things that can’t currently be accomplished with the California Coastal Commission’s interpretation of the city’s code and the application of the CCC definitions, said Mayor Bob Whalen.

“(Without this), eventually what’s going to happen with all these properties is they’re never going to be able to do much to them, they’re going to start decaying and not be renovated and upgraded,” he said. 

They’ve been hearing concerns for years about the confusion on these issues, Mayor Pro Tem Sue Kempf noted. 

“This does clear up a lot of ambiguity,” she said. 

It’s a complex and challenging issue, Councilmember Alex Rounaghi added, and staff did good job figuring it out. This applies the standards in an individualized and scientifically sound way.

“(This) moves us from an arbitrary approach to a scientific evidence-based approach that’s consistent with the historical development patterns of the city,” Rounaghi said.

There was a lot of discussion about whether or not to require an initial study under the California Environmental Quality Act.

The ordinance is a policy decision, but they are also “enabling some physical change to the environment that we’re not currently allowing,” Whalen said, and they need to carefully consider whether or not an initial study should be required.

“I’m in favor of what we’re doing,” he said. “I like the fact that we are going to allow people to do this, but is it having some impact on the environment that maybe needs to be mitigated?” 

The outstanding question is about the CEQA and the initial study, Rounaghi agreed. 

He’s suggested a possible checklist of criteria of what’s being looked at when implementing CEQA and how to make the determination to do an initial study. It would be helpful in the long term to have a clear understanding it would happen, he noted, because if an initial study is not done then it’s unknown if there’s an environmental impact.

“We live in the state of California where we have CEQA with all of its absurdities,” Rounaghi said. “I don’t know how we can…not do an initial study because you don’t know what you don’t know.”

Kempf agreed with the idea of a list of criteria. It should “hit the big ones” that would trigger an initial study, like a biological report or structural issues.

Community Development Director Marc Wiener suggested keeping it as is for the time being and staff will return with some alternative language for council to consider. 

Council approves bluff overlay district coastal homes

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Council approved a bluff overlay district aimed at clarifying oceanfront development regulations

Overall, a majority of councilmembers agreed that the proposed program was well done, although Weiss explained his dissenting vote was because it still needed work.

“I still think it needs some tweaking,” Weiss said. “This is huge in terms of what we’re doing, in developing the coastline, and it shouldn’t be done quickly.”

He questioned what problem the ordinance is trying to solve and why it was brought forward.

Problems primarily occur when oceanfront properties want to make improvements and they’re finding out their property is non-conforming, Wiener noted, and that’s largely due to unclear regulations. This also leads to a number of appeals to the CCC, he added. 

“There were a number of reasons that we needed to address this and we think it provides clarity to the standards,” Wiener said.

Weiss also raised concern that some homes were already built out to the fullest extent, noting that some are right on the beach or a cliff, and that this would allow them to be developed more than they were previously allowed. 

There is flexibility in the application of it and there are several special findings required, Wiener responded. 

“It doesn’t cover properties that are on sand or on the beach, those are nonconforming,” he explained. “When it comes to building along the edge of a cliff, they would have to match whatever the existing pattern of development is, they wouldn’t be allowed to go out any further.” 

They’ve been working with the California Coastal Commission staff throughout the process, Wiener said, and rewrote the ordinance based on the CCC staff feedback.

What council approved last week is also being reviewed by CCC. City staff anticipates some modifications from the state agency, but feels that it’s a really good start to the process, Wiener said.

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The current 25-foot bluff top setback is an important factor in oceanfront development projects and how the bluff edge is plotted across a site guides the footprint, size and configuration of a proposed project.

These factors are complicated by natural erosion processes and prior grading and development activity along the city’s bluff slopes. This has led to substantial issue determinations for some projects appealed to the California Coastal Commission.

“The current regulations for blufftop standards and major remodel are a blunt tool to regulate these really important aspects of our city and we needed something more specific, something clearer, something that was a little fairer to the property owners, but also made us compliant with the Coastal Act,” Wiener said. “We consider (the proposed ordinance) to be a reasonable and practical approach. We think it achieves the balance between a property owner’s right to maintain and improve their property, but also between the policies of the Coastal Act.” 

They want this to be a model program for other coastal cities in the state, he added. 

The historical response to coastal erosion has been to construct seawalls and other forms of coastal armoring to protect the threatened development, explained Principal Planner Anthony Viera, but the CCC and other agencies have found that hard armoring prevents the natural migration of the shoreline and, over time, generally results in the loss of the recreational beach area. As a result, the Coastal Commission tries to limit improvements adjacent to erosion-prone bluffs that could warrant the need for future armoring, he noted. 

Laguna Beach’s local coastal program addresses this issue through policies in the land use element and the zoning code with the express intent to ensure new and existing structures maintain sufficient setback from hazards, he said. 

Viera explained that the existing standards can be overly restrictive and don’t consider the unique site conditions that vary from lot to lot, the city’s advantageous coastal geology, the many non-conforming structures that already exist, and historical grading activities and other types of development have significantly altered the natural bluff conditions. 

The new bluff overlay district would be a new chapter in the zoning code, which creates a process and standards for certain types of oceanfront development, Viera explained. It addresses a few issues, he added, including sea level rise, coastal retreat and loss of recreational beach area due to coastal armoring.

According to recent geology studies, the city’s seven miles of coastline is largely erosion-resistant. 

Lots subject to stable erosion are eligible to apply for the bluff overlay district. The stable coastal erosion rate is proposed to be less than 0.2 feet per year. For lots subject to greater erosion rates, the 25-foot setback continues to apply.

If a lot is found to have a low rate of coastal erosion it may be eligible to be added to the bluff overlay district for the purpose of granting a site specific blufftop setback or encroachment. The decision would be subject to findings to establish that the reduced setback, or encroachment, conforms to the existing pattern of development, would not be threatened by geologic hazards and would continue to protect the on-site coastal resources.

The greater erosion category would also include sites that are subject to adverse geology, including being prone to landslides, Viera noted. But all sites would be subject to a site-specific study that would be peer reviewed by the city’s geologist on a case-by-case basis, he emphasized. 

An application for the bluff overlay district must be filed with a development proposal. The application should include a bluff overlay study (which should cover the bluff edge, erosion rate and a hazards evaluation), pattern of development in scenic resource analysis, oceanfront renderings and a drainage plan. 

Decisions will be determined based on four special findings (crafted to address policy issues specific to oceanfront development), existing coastal development findings and compliance with applicable design review criteria, Viera noted. 

Regarding the changes to major remodel classification, the current lack of a certified methodology carries some risk that the CCC could find substantial issue on appeal of certain projects. A certified definition of “major remodel” would provide greater certainty in outcomes.

For non-oceanfront properties, the definition for a major remodel would be met if a project proposed to demolish 50% or more of the exterior walls or if the proposed additions (either individually or when combined with prior additions) would result in a more than 50% addition to the existing structure (an exception would be for single family homes that may expand to a total gross floor area of 1,500 square feet).

For oceanfront property and areas subject to inundation a more stringent set of criteria would apply, Viera explained. These categories are generally: 50% or more demolition to the exterior building walls; 50% or more demolition or reinforcement of the structures foundation and a combined 50% of demolition of walls, foundation, and the structural roof components. Also, any additions to an existing structure (either individually or when combined with prior additions) would result in greater than 50% expansion would be considered a major remodel.

Staff also proposed miscellaneous code updates, including: Clarification that non-conforming uses are not considered abandoned merely due to a cessation of use; legal nonconforming structures may be altered for compliance with state mandated standards; revised bluff definitions and removing conflict bluff definition.

During public comments, a number of speakers supported the proposal.

Local REALTOR® Mike Johnson thanked the staff for their work on the item and applauded the science-based approach. It’s been needed for a long time, he added. This will help minimize the number of appeals while still protecting the coastline, Johnson said. 

Erin Barry from Smart Coast California also commended the city for producing a focused local coastal program amendment that address coastal hazards, like sea level rise and site-specific standards for development along the local shoreline.

A few other speakers thought it still needs work and wasn’t ready to be approved yet. 

Village Laguna President Anne Caenn agreed that bluff setbacks and major remodel definitions are issues that often cause misunderstandings, but felt the package is not ready and there are still a number of problems that need to be addressed. 

“In general, these changes will be less protective of the environment and will provide fewer opportunities for residents to question decisions on development proposals,” Caenn said. 

It’s also lengthy and complex, she noted, and it’s unrealistic to expect councilmembers and the public to comprehend and critique it since the staff report was published a few days prior to the meeting. She suggested the city hold a public workshop to review it in more detail. 

Wiener later responded that it went before the Planning Commission twice (which allows for public comment), notices were published for both the PC and council meetings and the various iterations of it were posted on the first page of the community development website for the past year.

Other comments included recommending the city get a professional preservation attorney’s opinion, that the 25-foot setback rule was less confusing than the proposed standards, and concern about who will interpret the proposed findings and make the determinations. 


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

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