Checking In


Whose House, Anyway?


By Catharine Cooper

Design Review has always been contentious, and how could it not be?  A property owner wants to alter their home to their unique tastes or physical needs only to find that that they are pitted against neighbors and a panel of city selected officials.


The recent bickering over whether a house was ‘historical’ reminded me of my own foray through the DRB process.  My home was a 1932 batten/board cottage that had been altered piecemeal over the decades. It had dry rot, termite chew, wet rot, fungus growing inside the walls, no heat – save a wood-burning fireplace – vintage electrical and plumbing, and a crumbling foundation.  It was time to let it go.


The first spasm of protestations came from a non-neighbor who had decided that my cottage should be saved – no matter what I wanted – or the cost.  I offered her the cottage – she could take it and move it wherever she liked – but that thank you, I wanted a contemporary home.


The capriciousness of the board is inherent in personal taste and opinions of the members.  In it’s own 2006 revamped handbook on residential development, the city admits that, “These design guidelines are intended to bridge the gap between the development standards in the Municipal Code and the discretionary process of design review.”


However, very little has actually changed. The DRB is still the final say on neighborhood context, architectural style, choice of plants, and of course, color.


At one hearing in my own DRB process, the board decided that the color of my exterior was too light beige.  I was instructed to add a blue tint.  At the next hearing, blue-beige chips in hand, I was told it was too blue, maybe too dark, and to come back with a lighter color.  Really?


I had it easy.  Today, given the same scenario, I would have to pay an historical consultant to prove that my ‘cottage’ was not worthy of record.  I’d have to hire a soils engineer, a legal team, a hydrologist, someone versed in CEQA and Coastal Commission regulations, provide a parking study, a view corridor study – and of course, a color consultant.


One of my fondest memories is about the couple that painted their house a shade lighter than their approved DRB color. To the uninitiated, there probably was little difference, but to the board, it was a flagrant disregard of their instructions, and the homeowner was ordered to correct it – or face increasing fines.  It was with great glee that many locals watched as the couple covered the entire side of their house with a painted American flag.


Even with the DRB guideline revisions, something’s still not quite right with the system.


Laguna prides itself on its artistic heritage and fosters that image with its festivals, museum and galleries.  Early residents built their homes as expressions of their taste – unencumbered by today’s constraints.


The city was founded on a freedom of artistic expression.  I’d like to see some of that freedom given back to its citizenry.


Catharine Cooper is a vintage resident with architectural roots from the 50s.  She can be reached at [email protected]


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  1. Well said Catherine. After inheriting our parents home we were faced with the same arbitrary and capricious small-mindedness. That is not the Laguna we grew up in and not the Laguna we have any interest in being a part of. Life is just too short. As a professional land use planner with over thirty years experience, I was appalled by what Laguna and neighborhing communities consider “appropriate” and necessary regulatory practice. Much as we hated to leave (for all the usual reasons), that was the final straw that made up our minds. We miss the breeze and the sunsets but are happy to leave the bickering to those who seem to have control issues and thrive on confrontation and pettyness.


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