The Council Has No Clothes
We all know the story of the emperor who wears no clothes, but is admired nonetheless by an adoring, trusting public, mesmerized by politicians and their sway over them.
That must be the case with our City Council. We Lagunans generally assume council members know what they are doing and we rely on them to use their best judgment. It is when they are deciding on something in which the facts are incontrovertible and then ignore the facts that we realize that their judgment is lacking.
This was certainly the case April 12 when the council was asked to determine whether the staff and Design Review Board erred or made misrepresentations to support their approval of a proposed mansion at 1001 San Jose St., in Arch Beach Heights.
Over the course of three DRB hearings and two appeals before the City Council, the project was opposed by 10 neighbors (myself included) and an expert architect, and was supported by only the applicant, her neighbor, paid consultants and a lawyer.
The Arch Beach Heights neighbors demonstrated that the city made a series of errors and misrepresentations by treating the new project as a “major remodel,” rather than new construction. This distinction is important because a new project is evaluated as though it is on vacant land, while a “major remodel” can retain the basic form of the original structure, even if part of that structure blocks views.
In this case, the original building was being completely demolished and a new view-blocking garage was allowed to replicate an existing view-blocking garage that could have been located more harmoniously had the project been properly treated as new construction.
Some of the errors included: The April 12 staff report describing the new home as 3,995 square feet, instead of 4,995, as stated in a Jan. 26 staff report; staff’s failure to apply a code requirement for Arch Beach Heights to lessen the size of new development; staff’s failure to acknowledge a similar project at 935 Baja St. ordered to be built below street level to preserve views; unsubstantiated evidence that winds had “blown down” required story pole flags needed to indicate white-water, north-coast view obstruction; allowing blank pages to substitute for critical testimony made before the DRB in a staff report; and the staff’s failure to address the DRB’s original requests for a reduction in deck size, lighting glare and removal of a block wall from open space, a violation of the General Plan.
The staff misrepresented the outcome of a hearing by describing DRB as at a “standstill” instead of what actually happened: that the DRB chair called for a vote to deny the project before negotiating with the applicant’s architect, an apparent violation of Robert’s Rules of Order.
All council needed was to find any one of these mistakes or errors by staff. Yet, Councilmembers Bob Whalen, Steve Dicterow and Kelly Boyd rubber-stamped the mistakes with Councilmembers Rob Zur Schmiede and Toni Iseman finding all this so egregious they voted to revoke council’s prior approval. Zur Schmiede’s vote actually reversed his prior approval of the project.
It is noteworthy that Whalen was inconsistent with his own vote at just the previous council meeting on March 29 when he joined Iseman and Zur Schmiede finding that a similar project at 32052 Sunset Ave., demolishing an existing structure, should go back to DRB and be considered as new home construction. (Dicterow voted with the developer and against the neighbors and Boyd was absent.)
Whalen, Dicterow and Boyd should have acted on the policies they confirmed on April 2 at a joint meeting of Council and the Design Review Board: If a house is demolished, staff must review the new house “as if it were being built on vacant land.” After all, there are very few vacant lots in Laguna and it seems rather implausible that only houses built on vacant land would be treated differently than a tear-down and building a new house. Zur Schmiede said at the hearing, “What difference does it make what used to be there?”
Yet Whalen accepted the staff opinion that the new home standard was being applied (even though that was clearly in error) and excused other errors of omission and commission. Only Iseman and Zur Schmiede were responsible, admitting that correct representations by staff would have made a difference in this project’s approval.
Ultimately, council’s job is to enforce the code, be consistent with their own votes and rhetoric and not excuse mistakes by the staff and DRB simply because the city does not want to admit liability in a land use case.
With both Whalen and Dicterow up for re-election, perhaps they should consider a new wardrobe. It gets mighty cold in November.
Alan Boinus is a high-tech entrepreneur, community volunteer and 27-year resident of Laguna Beach.