Design Review dominated Tuesday’s council meeting


Design Review issues dominated Tuesday’s City Council meeting that began with an hour-long joint session at 4 p.m. with the Design Review Board and included the last five items on the agenda for the regular meeting that ended at 10:47 p.m.

The council unanimously approved adding a 25 percent increase in fees to cover the city’s costs to process the multiple major projects proposed by the Laguna Beach Company.

 “We believe [the increase] is fair and feasible,” said City Manager John Pietig. “The projects are already costing more money.”

Projects include the Cleo Hotel, restoration of the Hotel Laguna, the Museum Hotel, the Central Bluffs – all along Coast Highway – multi-unit housing in Canyon Acres and most of the properties along Laguna Canyon Frontage Road that include The Hive, [seven-degrees] and Art-A-Fair grounds.

Descriptions of the projects are available for review by clicking here. Applications for review have been submitted for the Cleo and Museum hotels.   

 Pietig said an alternative to the increase would be for employees to track and record their time, but that would require a new and complex accounting method.

Mayor Bob Whalen and Mayor Pro Tem Steve Dicterow, both attorneys, said they had been tracking time spent with clients throughout their careers and it wasn’t that hard.   

City staff will be conducting a detailed Fee Study in the next fiscal year and Mayor Bob Whalen asked that tracking be added to the study.

Village Laguna President Johanna Felder said the group was concerned that the increase would lead to special consideration of the projects. 

“Paying more of the costs may create a tendency for staff to value the projects ahead of the smaller projects proposed by and for residents and move them to the front of the queue,” Felder testified. 

The increased fee was on the Consent Calendar Agenda but was pulled for discussion and a separate council vote. 

Community Development Action Plan

No vote was necessary on the presentation by Assistant Community Development Director Jim Pechous and his boss, Greg Pfost.

“This is a snapshot of the things we are looking at to lower the threshold of review,” said Pfost. 

They reviewed for the council and public the proposed implementation of the Community Development Action Plan and changes to streamline the discretionary review requirements summed up as Phase II of the action plan. 

The phase will examine the possible amendment to the Municipal Code to move minor requests for discretionary permits to lower minor level of review. 

Laguna Beach requires a discretionary permit for more than 100 types of projects. More than 1,500 permits were agendized in 2018, according to the staff.

“We are not considering amendments,” said Pfost. “We are just discussing possibilities to give to the Design Review Board to make comments and to the Planning Commission to make comments that would go to the council and finally to the Coastal Commission.”

Due to the variety of permits, staff is proposing a detailed evaluation of all discretionary permit applications to determine which are better suited to be reviewed and approved at a lower level – say from Design Review Board to administrative review – but still appealable to the council. 

Proposed changes also included simplifying revisions to approved landscaping plans; relocation of approved windows, if privacy is not an issue; changes to exterior materials if consistent with design and color palette;  improvements within the footprint of the existing building that have no impacts on the neighbors; and skylights with night shades. 

The presentation also recommended administrative review of trash enclosures for commercial use, revocation of encroachment permits and habitat restoration and fuel modification plans and programs.

Council directed staff to consider Emergency & Disaster Preparedness Committee recommendations on the proposed review of fuel modification.

“We are grateful the council supported our position,” said Committee Chair Matt Lawson. 

Waiver of fees for fire department-approved fuel modification projects, a requirement for fire department personnel to oversee projects and moving routine oversight to the department were among the committee’s recommendations. 

The committee also recommended limiting intrusion of fuel modification programs into environmentally sensitive areas unless deemed necessary by the Fire Chief to protect public safety and to consider ways to streamline approval of modifications of existing structures that improve fire safety.

Staff additionally recommended second story offices in commercial zones outside the downtown area be considered by-right use. 

Also proposed was a minor-exception permit – a junior-grade approval for minor code deviations. The exceptions findings would require neighborhood compatibility but would not be as rigorous as ordinary variance findings.

Already approved by the council was the inclusion of a clarification of the effective date of an application for an appeal of a Planning Commission interpretation and an expiration date. 

In addition to Phase II of the effort to streamline the discretionary review process, the city is also amending the Coastal Development Permit requirements so the projects that are minor in nature can be processed and approved faster. 

Design Review appeals

The next to last agenda item dealt with the process for appealing Design Review decisions, to make the city’s ordinance compatible with the California Coastal Commission process. 

Mayor Pro Tem Steve Dicterow withdrew his request to consider all appeals as de novo (meaning starting from scratch) due to lack of support. The council did agree that a 3-2 board decision appeal would be heard de novo. 

An appeal of a Design Review Board denial of a permit for a 57-square foot deck was overturned 4-1, Councilwoman Toni Iseman opposed. 

A second appeal of another Design Review decision was continued.

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