By Daniel Langhorne, Special to the Independent
Community development and wildfire protection are two areas the Laguna Beach City Council identified as its top legislative priorities in 2019 during a five-hour workshop on Saturday, Feb. 9 with city administrators.
City Council members were asked to choose their top five priorities from a list of 26 special projects they want completed by the end of the year. Four topics earned green lights from at least three council members:
- Streamline and improve customer satisfaction with the community development process
- Review major construction projects such as the remodel of Hotel Laguna, the Cleo Hotel, a new iteration of the Coast Inn, and the Heisler site project on North Coast Highway between Jasmine Street and Cliff Drive
- Adopt the Downtown Specific Plan
- Implement recommendations from the council subcommittee on how to better prevent, suppress, and evacuate from wildfires.
City Manager John Pietig said the City Council’s direction will help him and departments’ heads triage, since they have limited staff and resource.
“I think this is going to be a more difficult year to fund all of the things you’d like to do,” Pietig said.
Notably, Pietig mentioned Laguna Beach hasn’t seen the current level of economic development since Montage Laguna Beach was completed.
One of the major hurdles facing the City Council is how to reform Laguna Beach’s land use and entitlement process. Homeowners looking to remodel their properties have complained for years about how long it takes to get their applications approved.
Greg Pfost, director of community development, said there are aspects of the city’s building and zone codes that are archaic and are good candidates for reconsideration by the City Council. Pfost proposed hiring a principal planner to help streamline the permit process and review applications for some of the larger hotel projects expected later this year. He said the existing planning staff cannot take on the workload of new hotel projects in addition to the studies and development projects already in the pipeline.
To pay for this new position, city staff plans to propose a 12 to 16 percent increase in developer fees at the March 5 Council meeting. If approved at that meeting, the new fees would be effective on July 1.
Mayor Bob Whalen has been adamant that developers should pay for any costs the city incurs for processing their applications. City staffers are mulling the creation of expense accounts funded in advance by developesr to pay for any required fees or studies. Ideally, projects would be able to move through the environmental review and planning process more quickly.
Pietig said the concept needs fine tuning because state law limits cities to reasonably charge for the services they provide.
“We’re looking for what’s the smartest way for us to get community benefits from these major developments,” Whalen said.
The City Council is encouraging that city staff have the authority to approve minor changes. For example, property owners could get approval to install air conditioning units without having to appear before the Design Review Board.
Councilman Peter Blake pushed city staffers to move away from a system of “vague decisions” that is manipulated by what he referred to as a group of a few hundred politically-active residents pushing an anti-growth agenda.
“I’m sure nobody heard me say anything today that they haven’t heard a million times,” Blake said.
After years of public workshops, the City Council is slated to adopt the Downtown Specific Plan that will guide future commercial and residential development in Downtown Laguna Beach. Among the downtown improvements residents can expect this year are new trash cans, sidewalks, tree wells, and street lights.
The Specific Plan will need to go before the California Coastal Commission for final approval, but city staffers are looking to install some of these streetscape elements this year, so residents and visitors can finally benefit from years of work at city hall.
With such a full legislative agenda in the coming months, there are several projects the City Council decided to pause for at least a year. Among them is the plan to permanently close the 200 block of Park Avenue to vehicle traffic to create Park Plaza.
Councilwoman Sue Kempf said she wants to see how the city’s plan to turn Ocean Avenue between South Coast Highway and Beach Street into a one-way street will impact traffic before the city makes any changes to Park Avenue.
Shohreh Dupuis, assistant city manager and director of public works, said Laguna Beach will discontinue the beach trolley service outside of the summer months because it’s not seeing enough riders to justify its operation.
“I think it will help us work together as a team, for however long we’re together, to make things happen,” she said.