Design Review Slowed by Backlog



Last October, the City Council decided to scrap the alternate position for the Design Review Board in favor of a full member five-person panel. At the time, I testified that this was a bad idea and predicted that it would lead to significant inconvenience for applicants as it would lead to short-handed boards and costly delays.

The worst case scenario hit sooner than I thought. It came at the Feb. 24 meeting, which had to be cancelled for lack of a quorum. Three of the five board members were no-shows and only one of them, Ken Sadler, gave plenty of notice. (Ilse Lenchow gave four days notice and the board lost its quorum when Robin Zurschmiede decided at the last minute that winter vacation was more important than the 13 projects up for review.)

Of course, the DRB had to reschedule all 13 projects and re-noticing cost the city $1000. In addition, three applicants flying in from New York, Arizona, and Northern California also bore additional costs associated with their air travel rearrangements, while all 13 applicants will now suffer delays of two to four weeks.

On top of this, the next two DRB meetings will be packed. They will have 18 items each, which is four over the maximum typically allowed. Lately, a 13-14 item agenda has been taking five to six hours. With a 18 item agenda, deliberations will likely go deep well past midnight, causing significant stress to both staff and applicants as well as board members.

This situation is further complicated by a disturbing trend; some board members are failing to adequately prepare for the hearings, perhaps because of the heavy work load.  As a result, hearings take far more time because unprepared board members ask more questions than necessary. (The aforementioned Zurschmiede is the worst offender – watch any hearing and you’ll see the problem immediately.)

Here’s the bigger picture. As the economy picks up and more projects are scheduled, this situation will only get worse. In the last month alone, the City Council had to overturn two DRB rejections because of poor quality decision-making.

My recommendation is that the City Council immediately return to a system with an alternate. This extra hand helps when a board member is sick or takes a vacation and when a board member has a conflict of interest.

Having an alternate also helps to spread the workload.  In fact, before the position was scrapped, the alternate typically heard at least one or two projects per hearing even when the full board was in. That system worked well for many years and the Council should immediately reinstate it. And by the way, cutting the alternate didn’t save the city a dime. In fact, it’s costing them money because the DRB is running less efficiently.

I also strongly recommend that the DRB go back to its regular three meetings per month schedule rather than its twice a month schedule now.  Returning to this schedule would mean fewer items per night, less stress on staff and board members, and a better review process for applicants and neighbors.

Peter Navarro, Laguna Beach




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