City Looks to Improve Design Review Process

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After hearing from each member of the city’s Design Review Board (DRB) Tuesday night, the Laguna Beach City Council asked city staff to return with recommendations for improving the city’s design review process, which some residents, architects and developers feel is too time-consuming, restrictive and costly.

During the Feb. 5 joint meeting between the Council and the DRB, each board member took turns voicing their concerns with the process for reviewing applications for new homes and remodeling projects and offered up some potential solutions.

DRB member Deborah Neev said there’s a “heightened level of anxiety” by the time applicants make it to the DRB with their proposals due to the length of the city’s review process. Neev suggested providing applicants with a flow chart to help explain the steps they may encounter, and allowing applicants to submit plans to different city departments all at once rather than sequentially to reduce time and money spent in the review process. She also suggested reducing the number of staking days required, especially if a project needs to be re-staked after the first hearing.

Neev also brought up concerns with discrepancies between the city’s coastal development plan and the Coastal Commission, and the issue of equity versus view preservation, specifically in the Diamond/Crestview neighborhood.

DRB member Monica Simpson said issues and contention often arise with larger projects that generate neighborhood compatibility concerns, block views or impact privacy. She recommended more education for both community members and incoming DRB members, especially in regard to understanding the design review guidelines and applying solutions to reduce mass without reducing square footage.

Simpson also suggested implementing early staking so that neighbors are more aware of impending projects, and making sure all applicants are reading design review guidelines.

“When a project is too big, the board usually cites neighborhood compatibility as an issue, but often that comes across as arbitrary,” Simpson said. “People don’t understand it—they don’t understand the history of the mansionization ordinance; they don’t understand how the guidelines are actually a code, and it not only includes building, but landscape as well.”

DRB member Meg Monahan emphasized the need to solicit feedback from applicants and others involved in the design review process in order to better pinpoint where the issues are. She was also in favor of more training for future DRB members.

DRB member Loraine Mullen-Kress also expressed concerns with applicants coming before the board with projects that are not compliant with design review criteria, saying the city needs to do more to require projects be neighborhood compatible prior to the DRB process.

“One of the biggest problems is with staking and conceptualizing what is going to be built based on those tiny ribbons and string that not only are frequently inaccurate, but it’s difficult to imagine the mass that’s being represented,” Mullen-Kress said. She recommended requiring 2-inch-wide brightly colored tape and larger ribbons that would define a project’s mass more accurately.

DRB member Caren Liuzzi agreed with previous comments, echoing the need to allow parallel submittals to city staff rather than sequential submittals. Liuzzi was also concerned that some applicants are allowed to come before DRB for a hearing even though they are missing items from their proposals, causing unnecessary continuances.

“You need to have all your ducks in a row, so when it comes to us, we can approve it,” Liuzzi said.

After listening to the input, Council members took turns asking questions and commenting on the system. Councilwoman Sue Kempf agreed that a “feedback mechanism” would be good to capture residents’ experiences going through the DRB process.

Mayor Pro Tem Steve Dicterow said he felt a comprehensive review of the entire land use entitlement process is needed.

“We all would agree that it takes too long, and it costs too much, but we kind of like what the results are,” Dicterow said. “So, we have to figure out how to shorten the time and make it less expensive.”

City Manager John Pietig said staff will present some design review recommendations to the Council on Saturday during a strategic planning workshop. Pietig noted that they may need to “fine tune” some of those recommendations based on the input received from DRB members. Input from Saturday’s workshop will then be used to present options to the Council on March 5.

Pietig noted that the Council will also receive a mid-year budget update on March 5, so they’ll have an opportunity to reallocate resources if necessary to help with efforts to improve the DRB process, “be it for staffing, training, computer systems, or potentially changing the way [staff interfaces] with people in the lobby at city hall.”

Pietig said staff is already working on some of those items, and the DRB input on Tuesday was “very powerful” in both confirming the city’s focus and identifying additional areas that need work. He added that looking at some of the larger policy questions brought up during the discussion will take more time, such as Local Coastal Program issues and disagreements with the Coastal Commission.

The Council’s strategic planning workshop will take place 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 9, at the Susi Q Senior Center, 380 Third Street. Beyond receiving design review recommendations, the Council will hear about the city’s financial picture, major items and key department projects scheduled for 2019, and will set priorities for the coming year. View the agenda at



Commission Appointments

The City Council also made appointments to its advisory commissions on Tuesday night. Those appointments included:

Design Review Board: Deborah Neev, Kristine Thalman and Louis Weil

Heritage Committee: Linda Morgenlander and Clark Collins were appointed. A third seat remains open on the five-member committee as the third incumbent who applied was disqualified for refusing to fill out a financial disclosure statement. The city will accept applications for the remaining seat through March 5, and an appointment will be made on March 19.

Environmental Sustainability Committee: With five openings and seven applicants, the Council ultimately voted to appoint all seven residents and expand the committee to nine people. Appointees are: Judie Mancuso, Mike Beanan, Felix Desroches, Juliana Essens, Alan Flatt, Anne Marie Girtz and Emerich Hlava.

Parking, Traffic & Circulation Committee: Carolyn Aufhammer, Lawrence Esten, Byron Nelson and Hamid “Tony” Rahimian

Measure LL Audit Oversight Committee: Glenn Gray

Recreation Committee: Walter Bell, John Goodkind, Anna Greiner, David Hand and Evan Pinto

View Restoration Committee: Rebecca Carson, Ruben Flores and Ara Hovanesian

OC Mosquito & Vector Control District: Michael Morris



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