Recently, Laguna Beach locals have been reminiscing in print about infamous Design Review Board experiences. Residents and visitors alike might wonder if these stories are the norm for a Design Review decision today. They are not. In the past few years, the Design Review process has greatly improved as a result of a process set in motion by the City Council. In 2005 the City Council appointed a citizen task force to conduct public meetings and make recommendations for changes that would address the many apparent problems.
In 2009 the City Council unanimously adopted significant revisions to the municipal code that reflected the task force recommendations. The revisions (Municipal Code section 25.05.040) changed the DRB process in ways that now provide better information to the three most important participants in the process: applicants, the public and Design Review Board members. These changes have resulted in a more open, informative and less contentious process. The improvements include:
Improved Staff Reports: Usually available on line the Friday before the hearing, staff reports are now required to provide sufficient information to allow anyone reading the report to understand the proposed project, the areas of compliance and challenges to compliance with Design Review criteria, any applicable special regulations, and, if a variance is requested, the facts and analysis on the four findings necessary for approval.
Enhanced Individual Staff Support: Applicants have an assigned staff person to review their application and plans and assist with information about development standards and other codes and criteria applicable to their project.
More Accessible Guideline Resources: Design guidelines, adopted by the Council on Dec. 7, 2010, and available on the city website, explain the design review process with a chapter for each of the design review criteria, including objectives and examples for achieving compliance.
Expanded DRB Member Briefings: Board members now have better information about applicable development standards and findings necessary to approve a project through staff reports, project plans, visits to the site and neighboring properties. It is important to remember that board members do not design the project for the applicant. They are required, however, to ground their comments and direction on applicable standards and criteria and clearly articulate the reasons for their comments and decisions in the public hearing.
Improved Support for Expedited Clearance: Architects and designers now have sufficient information and assistance to design a project that closely meets the requirements so that a project can easily be approved within the new two hearing limit. If an applicant has made a good faith attempt to address the board direction, the board can allow a final third hearing to gain a project approval. Board decisions to deny a project must state the specific basis for the denial.
Streamlined Appeals Process: Appeals are now required to state specific reasons for the appeal and the council is limited to reviewing the stated reasons for the appeal against the written record before the board, including detailed public hearing minutes that informs the council of the reasons for the project’s approval or denial.
While challenges remain to implement the changes made in 2009, much progress has already been made and an increasing number of projects are quickly gaining approvals, many at the first hearing. Design Review support staff members are dedicated to addressing community concerns and with the shared commitment of the current board members and many of the city’s fine architects to the new procedures, we are all working together to continue to improve the process so that the City Councilʼs vision of a transparent, streamlined, and less contentious Design Review experience will be achieved and maintained.
While they might make good reading, stories about past problems with the Design Review Board don’t reflect today’s process. Many important lessons from that history have been addressed to provide a better DRB process for everyone involved.
Robin Zur Schmiede, chair of the Design Review Board, began serving on the panel in 2009. A 30 year Laguna resident, Zur Schmiede previously worked as a lawyer to Newport Beach, including four years as city attorney and 14 years as legal advisor to its planning commission. Her daughter is a senior at the high school.