Letter: Design Review System is Broken

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After watching the City Council item on Jan. 8, “Improving the Design Review Process,” I am compelled to share my experiences. I believe our system is broken on numerous levels. Here’s why:

There has been an ongoing tree dispute on Ocean Way for years. Three of those years, I have had a View Preservation Claim for a pre-existing view. The neighbors directly next to the tree owner have been in a dispute much longer.

The city has allowed the tree owner and her representative, a former DRB member, to work the system in every way possible, granting multiple continuances, while the tree has continued to grow to 60 feet by 20 feet, blocking numerous pre-existing views.

I have had a View Preservation Claim open on the tree, paying City Hall to participate in everything associated with the claim.

The city was notified through Code Enforcement in 2011 by another neighbor that the tree was never approved on the landscape plan. The approved landscape plan stated “DO NOT PLANT HERE” due to several slope failures.

The tree owner’s representative requested the plan be amended to include the now very large tree.

I postponed my claim when an assistant planner at City Hall and a code enforcement officer both told me the plan was not likely to be amended since the tree is blocking a number of pre-existing views. What they did not tell me was that if it were approved, neighbors could not file future claims.

The DRB’s consensus was 4-1 denying the change in the landscape plan. It seemed the system was making sense. One board member even said, “Since the house is on the market for sale, a new owner isn’t going to care anything about that tree.”

The applicant requested another continuance, and even with the 4-1 consensus, surprisingly it was granted. Now he has asked for yet another continuance for his fourth continuance.

There are professionals who previously served on city boards and know the system. They develop “friends” in city hall, and make money applying their knowledge and gaming the system.

The city doesn’t do due diligence when view claims are filed. DRB tries to find compromises, but clearly this case should never have gotten to DRB. The tree has grown significantly taller since the city was advised of the violation.

I sincerely hope our broken system can be fixed.

Debbie Lewis, Laguna Beach

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  1. The former DRB member referenced is Steve Kawaratani. He has been allowed to practice as a lobbyist in the city for many years – to my knowledge, without a license nor as a registered lobbyist. In fact, he has done lobbying work on behalf of other DRB members – specifically Roger Mc Erlane. How does the city allow a person that is lobbying the very person they are representing in an action – see The Indy November 3, 2015 “Second Unit Yields Scrutiny for a City Appointee”? You’ll also notice in that article Steve is listed as a “landscape architect” – to my knowledge, and according to the list of licensed landscape architects in the State of California, Steve does not have a license (yet he submitted an altered landscape plan in the case mentioned above). Mr. Kawaratani is also not an attorney. Therefore he does not report to a higher authority or have specific ethics rules he must follow. Why does the city continue to allow him to lobby DRB, City Council, etc.? He is creating hardship and drama for profit as a result of his previous position on the DRB. It’s shameful.


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