Does the Wet Suit You

By JJ Gasparotti

Peter Blake placed the reformation of Design Review on the City Council’s agenda this past Tuesday. Design Review has been reformed several times in the past. So far no one has risen to the stature of a Martin Luther with those efforts.

Will Peter’s effort elevate him to the stature of St. Peter the reformer, or sink him to the level of Peter the sinner?

Reforming design review in Laguna is almost as hard as reforming the Catholic Church. That’s because design review involves telling applicants what they may or may not do with what is their most valued asset—their home.

It also involves telling the applicant’s neighbors what effect the proposed project will have on their most valued asset—their home. This is perhaps the most fraught experience a person can go through.

Add to that tension the appointment of the occasional idiot to the board, combined with the predilection of the neighbors to use the public hearing process like a child custody hearing, and you’ll end up with a brutal process that scars all involved.

One of the most frequent questions concerning design review is, “If my project meets all of the provisions of the zoning code and doesn’t block any views, why does it need a hearing?”

A past effort to reform design review qualified those projects for the consent calendar, not subject to a public hearing. And then made it possible for any one person to have the project pulled from the consent calendar for any reason at all. That’s no reward for doing your best to conform with the rules and guidelines.

When a project is reviewed by the board, it gets a thorough review and recommendations for revisions, whether it needs it or not. The board members feed off of each other’s remarks, trying to show they are hard at work at their job and perhaps the idiots trying to show how smart they are.

It may well be that the threat of design review can be as effective as having to actually endure the public hearing process, with its often-dismal results of bad projects being made worse and good projects deformed by the ill-informed good intentions of the mob.

Maybe we can reform the process by making it more certain that those projects that meet the zoning code and don’t block views can earn a pass from the ministrations of a public hearing. Requiring a motion and a majority vote to pull individual projects from the consent calendar would be a step in that direction.


J.J. Gasparotti moved to Laguna Beach with his family when he was 11 years old. He has loved it ever since.

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