Council, Design Review Board Dive Into Strategies to Simplify Home Remodels and Fire Breaks

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By Daniel Langhorne, Special to the Independent

Greg Pfost, Director of community development, (center) talks to the Design Review Board and City Council at their joint meeting on Tuesday.
— Photo by Daniel Langhorne ©

Laguna Beach homeowners looking to make minor changes to their remodel designs, without requesting a Design Review Board hearing, may see some relief from a list of changes the City Council directed city staffers to explore at Tuesday’s meeting.

The City Council had a joint meeting with Design Review Board on Tuesday afternoon where they agreed to create a subcommittee to brainstorm and assess potential issues with reforming the design review process.

The city’s controversial process for reviewing and approving designs for new homes or remodels was among the hottest topics during the 2018 city council election. For many homeowners, it’s become a time-consuming, litigious process, involving years of maneuvers by attorneys, architects, and consultants.

In many instances, these fights between neighbors boil down to the preservation of a home’s ocean view, mansionization of historically modest neighborhoods, and privacy concerns.

“I think we’re moving in the direction of trying to streamline processes and making them a little easier to understand,” City Manager John Pietig said. “Whether that will prevent someone from needing to hire an attorney, I don’t know.”

Councilmember Sue Kempf pointed out that the Design Review Board is often incorrectly vilified by residents as the source of everything that’s wrong with building in Laguna Beach. In reality, the problems stem from inconsistent, archaic parts of the Municipal Code and how they’re interpreted.

“I don’t think people should take the fact that staff is working on improving things as an indictment of DRB,” Kempf said. “It’s not an indictment of you guys.”

Laguna Beach City Council members Sue Kempf, Toni Iseman, Bob Whalen, Steve Dicterow and Peter Blake listen to comments during a joint meeting with the Design Review Board on Tuesday.
— Photo by Daniel Langhorne ©

The second phase of streamlining the design review process could allow Greg Pfost, director of community development, to administratively approve the following: Relocation of windows by more than a foot when there are no privacy issues; Changes to design with neighbors’ approval; Pedestrian gates that have no impact on views; Vinyl fences; Skylights including nightshades; and changes to vegetation in approved landscaping plans if the new plants aren’t higher or wider than those being replaced.

The City Council will also consider allowing staff to hold more administrative review hearings on changes to plans that have already been approved by the Design Review Board. Currently, a project must return to DRB if any of these tweaks are made: additions of more than 25 square feet; grading in excess of 10 cubic square yards of dirt; and/or relocation of windows by more than a foot if the original design satisfied a neighbor’s privacy concerns.

Design Review Board Chairwoman Meg Monahan encouraged the council members to offer the DRB sufficient time to review streamlined practices before they reach the City Council.

“Since we’re the ones in the trenches and we’re intimately involved in a lot of this, it would be beneficial for the community and the process to get involved with these issues before they come up,” she said.

Another important component of this second phase of streamlining how the city approves wildfire fuel modification on public and private property, which entails cutting back brush and creating defensible space around neighborhoods. The city’s review of fuel modification zones is an expensive, time-consuming process that ultimately endangers the lives and property of Laguna Beach residents, said Matt Lawson, chair of the Emergency and Disaster Preparedness Committee (EDPC).

“Given the extreme wildfire hazard facing our entire community, EDPC supports staff’s recommendation to streamline the Design Review approval process and Coastal Development Permit issuance to encourage fuel modification by private property owners,” Lawson said.

Lawson and his fellow EDPC members believe authority needs to be transferred from the Community Development Department to Laguna Beach Fire Chief Mike Garcia or other fire personnel to review of all new fuel modification projects and routine maintenance.

The city should also waive fees for residents who need Administrative Design Review and Coastal Development Permits for fuel modification projects already approved by the Fire Department, Lawson said.

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