Artist joins Planning Commission, Council rejects Blake’s clean sweep of DRB
By Daniel Langhorne, Special to the Independent
The shakeup of Laguna Beach’s most consequential commissions continued at Tuesday’s City Council meeting, with the appointment of artist Jorg Dubin as the newest planning commissioner.
Mayor Bob Whalen, Mayor Pro Tem Steve Dicterow, and Councilman Peter Blake voted for Dubin, who stood out last fall as a write-in City Council candidate by wearing a Soviet military uniform to candidate forums. Dubin takes the seat of recently-elected Councilwoman Sue Kempf, who joined Councilwoman Toni Iseman in supporting hotel executive Steven Goldman for the seat.
During his 40 years in Laguna Beach, Dubin has served on the board of directors of the Sawdust Art Festival and the Laguna Art Museum. Dubin said he hopes to bring a sense of humor to the Planning Commission and a voice that is independent of the construction, urban planning, and real estate investment industries.
“I know there is a lot of serious business to attend to, but having been through a lot of Design Review Board, Planning Commission, and City Council meetings, I can see people get a lot of long faces and there can be a lot of passion involved in these things,” Dubin said.
Dubin will serve until the remainder of Kempf’s term expires in June 2020. Whalen invited the 10 other applicants for Kempf’s seat to reapply in May as Planning Commissioners Roger McErlane and Susan McLintock Whitin term out of office.
Dicterow said he hopes Dubin will bring some creative thinking to major projects like the Cleo Hotel, Hotel Laguna, and the Downtown Specific Plan. He isn’t concerned about Dubin’s lack of technical experience in fields like engineering or urban planning because city staffers will be available to explain the intricacies of city regulations.
“I think Jorg brings a fresh view and approach to things,” Dicterow said. “In any good planning, you need a diversity of viewpoints and the perspective of artists, which is a major component of Laguna Beach and hasn’t been heard as part of the planning process.”
Design Review Board
As he promised to do in his campaign for City Council, Blake took his first stab at reforming the Design Review Board on Tuesday, which has stirred outrage for years among homeowners looking to build or remodel their properties. Homeowners who take on these projects complain about how long the process takes, the cost, the complexity, the unpredictability, the contentiousness, and the lack of civility that erupts at meetings.
Blake proposed having all five members of the Design Review Board reapply for their positions even though only three are up for reappointment this year. He’s repeatedly criticized the board members’ decision-making as arbitrary and has said that the process erodes homeowners’ property rights.
Laguna Beach residents filled the council chambers to share their experiences and opinions of the Design Review Board. Those who are supportive of the panel said that it plays an important function in protecting homeowners’ valuable views from being blocked by new construction and preventing development that is out-of-step with the surrounding neighborhood.
Blake said his proposal was being hijacked by architects, lawyers, and consultants who financially benefit from the complex review process and political activists who want the status quo maintained.
“All of you couldn’t say for one second that you think the system is OK,” Blake said. “Every one of you said it’s broken, but you don’t like the way I’m trying to fix it. And that’s just a stall tactic to make sure it never gets fixed and you keep this politicized program in place.”
Cindy Shopoff, a Laguna Beach resident who was one of the primary funders of the Liberate Laguna PAC that supported Blake, said it took her and her husband six and a half years to get approval to build a new home on a vacant lot. During the process, they agreed to make about 200 changes to their architectural plans that were suggested by the Design Review Board.
“I believe the City Council needs to send a clear message to the committees, commissions, and staff that it is time for civility and service to be returned to our city. The system is so broken that radical change may be the only way to save it,” she said.
Although she opposed reexamining all of the Design Review Board members, Kempf said she plans to work with City Manager John Pietig to look at how to improve the public’s experience from the moment they submit an application to city staff.
“I expect a culture of continuous improvement and operational excellence in our staff as well as our boards and commissions,” she said. “People in these positions represent our town and are responsible for our reputation. Overall, I think we do a decent job but have plenty of room for improvement.”
The City Council scheduled a joint meeting on Feb. 5 with the Design Review Board to hear board members’ suggestions for how to improve its interactions with the public.