Laguna Beach advances development rules once mulled for alternative ballot initiative

Renderings submitted to the city in 2019 show the potential design of the Museum Hotel along the oceanside of Coast Highway between Cliff Drive and Jasmine Street. The project has not advanced since the preliminary concept review. Images courtesy of Laguna Creative Ventures

Correction: In a previous version of this story, the Independent incorrectly labeled the proposed city law advanced by the Laguna Beach City Council on July 26, 2022. The Independent regrets the error.

By Clara Beard, Special to the Independent
The Laguna Beach City Council continues to move closer to finalizing a new city law that includes many of the development rules it had once mulled for a ballot initiative.

The proposed law comes after the Laguna Residents First PAC (LRF) campaign to target potential overdevelopment. Laguna Residents First hope to pass a measure that would require Laguna Beach voters’ approval on significant development projects within 750 feet of Coast Highway or Laguna Canyon Road.

The City Council-driven changes to city law could present an alternative to the LRF initiative, which has been officially opposed by a majority of the City Council.

“If the [Laguna Residents First] initiative doesn’t pass, we’ve made some enhancements, some further restrictions in our code that I think are… good restrictions to make,” Mayor Pro Tem Bob Whalen said. “What we have here, I think, is something that’s good for the community and good for our planning process.”

The City Council voted 3-2 to move the proposed city law to the Planning Commission to prepare commercial design guidelines. The City Council is then allowed under state law to vote the new rules into city law, rather than putting them on the ballot.

Director of Community Development Marc Wiener presented the proposed changes to city law in its special meeting Tuesday. As in past meetings, the idea surrounding the amendment to the municipal code remained the same—to restrict the height, mass, and bulk of buildings to preserve Laguna Beach’s small-scale village feel.

“Overall, it’s essentially the same as what brought to you before,” Wiener said.

The proposed city law includes new standards that address large-scale development, sites of 15,000 square feet or larger. The proposal would also stop lot mergers from surpassing 15,000 feet within 500 feet of the Downtown Specific Plan area, public facilities and public parking structures are exempt from these lot merger standards.

The amended code would also restrict individual building street frontage to 125 feet for projects outside the boundary.

Councilmembers directed city staffers to work on amending the Downtown Specific Plan to require all downtown eating and drinking establishments to obtain conditional use permits. Currently, the City mandates these permits for restaurants that serve alcohol and meet other certain requirements.

The Laguna Beach Planning Commission unanimously approved the city-driven change to development rules in June.

Staff will continue to prepare an ordinance that would subject new businesses to the Parking Master Plan for City Council review, and modify the Downtown Specific Plan to require conditional use permits for all downtown restaurants.

Laguna Residents First founder emeritus and councilmember George Weiss and Councilmember Toni Iseman opposed the measure.

“The LRF ballot initiative is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to give residents a direct say about whether jumbo commercial projects get built here,” Weiss said. “And people follow the rules. It’s the same democratic voting right that residents in our neighboring cities Newport Beach, Costa Mesa, [and] Dana Point have.”

Mayor Sue Kempf spoke in favor of the proposed changes to city law, reiterating that Laguna Beach does minimal large-scale development. She felt City Council was at the point where they could move forward.

“We don’t have any trip wires in it, we don’t have any unintended consequences and we’re not going to need any random elections where we won’t have any legal challenges,” she said. “we’re going to create some design guidelines, which I like, and we’ll get Planning Commission input on that.”

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