Laguna Beach OKs plan to ease permitting, parking rules for new downtown businesses

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Downtown Laguna Beach. File Photo

Laguna Beach officially adopted looser permitting and parking rules for downtown businesses on Tuesday, capping a years-long process by city officials to create a more business-friendly environment.

The Laguna Beach City Council unanimously voted to approve the update of the Downtown Specific Plan, an evolving document that has governed development in Downtown Laguna for more than 30 years. This latest action was largely procedural following a preliminary vote on June 16 that attracted wide public interest.

The Downtown Specific Plan’s updated ordinances now head to the California Coastal Commission for certification as required by the Coastal Act. City officials expect it will be several months before a hearing is placed on the state panel’s agenda.

Councilmember Sue Kempf said in a phone interview Wednesday that she started working on Downtown Specific Plan four years ago as a planning commissioner and that the document is the result of a lot of thoughtful study and information from retail experts, including existing business owners.

“I think it will give our local economy our needed boost and attract businesses that are more enticing to residents and visitors,” Kempf said.

At issue Tuesday was whether Laguna Beach should update the Downtown Specific Plan to limit the requirement to apply for a conditional use permit to new bars, restaurants, live entertainment venues, and souvenir shops. All other commercial uses would be permitted-by-right, avoiding time-intensive, costly review by city staffers and the Planning Commission.

Councilmembers also slashed requirements for on-site parking, which has long been a barrier for new businesses to move into buildings that were developed without designated parking spaces.

Under the outgoing rules, retail business owners have to provide one parking space per 250 square feet of gross floor area. Likewise, food service businesses have to provide one space for every 100 square feet of gross floor area. To get around this requirement, business owners often elect to pay the city an in-lieu fee to help fund a future parking structure.

If certified the Coastal Commission, the new parking requirement would be three spaces for every 1,000 square feet of gross floor area, regardless of the commercial use. City staff clarified that businesses that have operated for decades with “legal nonconforming parking conditions” will be allowed to stay open as long as they don’t intensify their commercial use.

The City Council has yet to act on more controversial changes of the Downtown Specific Plan such as combining parcels to develop larger projects and increasing building height limits on certain streets to allow second or third stories.

Downtown Laguna is ripe for some very measured change to its current look, Kempf said.

“I’m for a more thoughtful evolution of our town,” she said. “I don’t see the threat of Laguna becoming Dana Point or Newport being remotely possible.”

As the lone dissenter in the June 16 vote, Councilmember Toni Iseman pressed city staffers on Tuesday for details of how they’ll keep tabs on the Downtown Specific Plan’s environmental impacts if it’s certified by the Coastal Commission.

“How do we come back and measure whether or not this is having an impact on our residential neighborhoods?” Iseman asked. “What is the trigger for reexamining this if it has an unintended consequence?”

Community Development Director Marc Wiener said city staff can measure some of the impacts of looser parking requirements by monitoring the parking revenue as an indicator of parking space occupancy

“If it appears to be becoming unmanageable then we have the ability to not approve any more [conditional use permits,]” Wiener said. 

By talking with planning commissioners, Iseman said she learned that entrepreneurs will hear through their professional network that they can’t open a certain business type in Laguna or shouldn’t try.

“That happens before people even get to the [planning counter] so I’m just concerned that there was a myth that was pushing our reputation as being tough,” Iseman said.

Iseman’s fellow councilmembers championed the Downtown Specific Plan update as part of a cure to this problem. They’ve also pursued hiring a consultant to help recruit businesses interested in a potential move to Downtown Laguna.

Paula Hornbuckle-Arnold, executive director of the Laguna Beach Chamber of Commerce, has been among the biggest boosters for the new permit and parking rules. She was thrilled to learn Wednesday that the City Council officially approved an update of the Downtown Specific Plan.

“This is probably one of the most exciting things that have happened in Laguna,” Hornbuckle-Arnold said. “Businesses’ ability to shift without the old constraints of the CUP process is going to help businesses thrive in an economy where they have to pivot.”

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