By Daniel Langhorne, Special to the Independent
The Laguna Beach City Council denied an appeal of a 28-unit artist live/work project planned for Laguna Canyon and allowed it to move forward on Tuesday, arguing the Planning Commission properly concluded that the project’s permits didn’t expire as its opponents claim.
The vote 4-1 vote, Councilwoman Toni Iseman opposed, came after 11 p.m. following extensive debate by both sides over whether a deadline clock stopped ticking until the California Coastal Commission approved the project’s coastal development permit on Aug. 9, 2017.
Friends of the Laguna Canyon, an unincorporated association of advocates for the Canyon’s rural character and natural resources, has argued that the conditional use permit and design review approval for the project at 20412 and 20432 Laguna Canyon Road lapsed on April 3, 2018. Julie Hamilton, an attorney for Friends of Laguna Canyon, said Wednesday she was disappointed with the City Council’s interpretation of the Municipal Code.
“This project is not good,” she said. “It sets a precedent for high density in the Canyon. It’s something that is inappropriate based on the natural resources, rural character, and traffic in the Canyon.”
Property owner and sculptor Louis Longi said it was impossible for him to move forward until he received his coastal development permit from the Coastal Commission last February.
“Our project meets all of the standards of the city, the ordinances, the setbacks, and everything, and it’s been stamped in concept and reviewed by Scott [Drapkin] and his department,” Longi said.
The project reserves eight units for low-income artists and one unit for moderate-income artists for 55 years. It also includes a 498 square-foot retail art gallery and 45-space parking garage.
Hamilton said Friends of the Canyon hasn’t made a determination about what its next step will be, but she does anticipate further legal action. Three lawsuits over this project have been filed in the last four years, Longi’s attorney Jeffrey Harlan said.
“I think it’s important for folks to understand that the people who I have worked with since 2016 don’t enjoy this battle,” Hamilton said. “The majority don’t live in the canyon and the only reason they’re involved is they truly care about their community.”
Friends of the Canyon is supported by a host of nongovernmental organizations including the Laguna Canyon Conservancy; Clean Water Now; Laguna Canyon Foundation; Laguna Greenbelt; Friends of Harbors, Beaches and Parks; and Orange County Coastkeeper, said resident Jackie Gallagher. The Association used the “effective date” of an affidavit signed by Longi on April 3, 2014, as the crux of its latest legal argument that his conditional use permit and design review approval expired.
Laguna Canyon residents say they’re concerned that a 36-foot-tall building setback 10 feet from the Laguna Canyon Creek will signal to other developers that high-density housing is welcome in their neighborhood.
Lily Albritton, daughter of John Albritton of the Laguna Canyon Property Owners Association, cried at the podium Tuesday as she recalled memories of playing in the creek and eating fruit from a Kumquat tree with her childhood friends.
“How can anyone possibly think that building an apartment complex on this delicate ecosystem makes any sense?” she said. “This process has been going on for six years and I’ve spent a third of my life watching my dad and neighborhood fight for this cause.”
The Laguna Canyon Annexation Specific Plan was intended to preserve the rural, low-density housing and light manufacturing uses that have historically populated the gateway to Laguna Beach. This vision has been called into the question by the election of Councilman Peter Blake, who prioritized streamlining the city’s process for reviewing new housing projects.
The Art Gallery owner appeared floored that a project already approved by the Planning Commission, City Council, and Coastal Commission continues to be obstructed by environmental and neighborhood advocates.
“This is a clear indication of everything that is wrong with this community,” Blake said. “This has been 10 years of dirty tricks, legal maneuvers, and I hope we’re seeing an end to this. A year or two from now I want people to be making art in this building. I want the Canyon to become a place where we can start building affordable housing for our elders, our artists and our millennials coming home. It’s going to the change just like everything else does in this community.”
Following the City Council’s decision Tuesday, Longi has until Aug. 9, 2019 to obtain a building permit from the city or get another extension from the Planning Commission.