Laguna Beach OKs rules to blunt state housing law’s impact

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Signs outside Laguna Beach City Hall direct visitors to check-in at the Council Chambers amid a COVID-19 case surge. Photo by Daniel Langhorne

By Megan Miller, Special to the Independent

The Laguna Beach City Council unanimously approved the adoption of an urgency ordinance Tuesday that puts guardrails on the implementation of a new state law banning single family zoning, which went into effect Jan. 1.

Senate Bill 9, also known as “SB 9,” was signed Sept. 16 by Gov. Gavin Newsom and seeks to promote housing development across California. Property owners can choose to have up to two residential units on a previously single family lot, or they can divide the lot itself roughly into halves, with each resulting property eligible for up to two units.

Each unit must total at least 800 square feet, and each lot must result in no less than 1,200 square feet.

Marc Wiener, director of community development, estimated some 50% to 60% of Laguna Beach properties could be eligible, while Mayor Sue Kempf approximated closer to 75%.

“It’s a predominantly single family residential City,” Wiener said.

Already Laguna Beach has received a few SB 9 applications, spurring staffers to come up with the urgency ordinance that will allow Laguna Beach greater control over how the bill is implemented, Wiener said.

A “by right” clause protects the SB 9 application from being subjected to the California Environmental Quality Act or a public hearing, so long as it is eligible under the bill’s specifications.

Other nearby cities including Costa Mesa, San Juan Capistrano and San Clemente have already adopted similar ordinances.

The new state law is a significant change from the way Laguna Beach has treated development in the past, which has often required “thoughtful” and lengthy processes, Wiener said. Yet, “there is still some latitude for the city to provide regulations,” he added.

SB 9 would not apply to residences that are within environmentally hazardous areas, or properties that are defined as historic resources.

Laguna Beach also capped the new residential units at 1,000 square feet in the urgency ordinance. A height limit of 16 feet will also apply, with no rooftop decks allowed.

Wiener anticipated that most people would opt to apply for accessory dwelling units (ADUs), due to the more relaxed parking requirements, but identified the ability to divide property lots as one of the key incentives of SB 9.

Lots that have been split can be sold separate. However, properties that have previously invoked SB 9 cannot apply again for additional divisions or add ADUs.

Laguna Beach will also only allow lots to be halved rectangularly, therefore preventing “flag lots,” and uneven property lines. Property owners must also inhabit one of the units as a primary residence for at least three years following the approval of the SB 9 application. City officials see this requirement as a shield against unchecked real estate speculation by developers.

As originally proposed, lot splits would have been required to have at least 30 feet of street frontage. However, Mayor Pro Tem Bob Whalen pointed out that typical properties in Laguna Beach are zoned with 50 feet of public street frontage, therefore making the division improbable.

The City Council debated over the application of the language. Wiener said applying the verbiage of “public street frontage” in the more restrictive sense would likely take the ordinance out of compliance with state law.
“The fact that it’s ambiguous probably means we need to tighten up the language,” Wiener said.

Councilmembers voted to adopt the ordinance on the condition that the language be changed. It will go into effect immediately, and continue for 45 days.

“During this time we would study the ordinance and refine it,” Wiener said. He also offered to have City staffers return to Council with a specific assessment of how many lots are eligible for SB 9 application.

After 45 days, Councilmembers can choose to extend it or make a permanent law at the April 26 meeting.

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