The Laguna War on Young Families
His name is Drake, his wife’s name is Tricia, and they have two infants, 3 and 1. They met here, courted here, had their two babies while living here, and they wanted to buy a house and make a permanent home here, but the other day Drake told me, “I give up, I can’t do it.”
“I had a fixer-upper in escrow, but I canceled it.”
Drake got this faraway look on his face. He does that when he is lost in thought, which for him, is normal. He works for a big tech company and makes a great living being very left-brained and analytical. Do the appropriate research, create a spreadsheet, run the numbers in a series of hypothetical possibilities, and when he is sure he has the right approach, proceed.
That is what he did while trying to buy a house in Laguna Beach. He found a shack, old and beat, about 800 square feet. He and Tricia could fix it up, install new plumbing and electrical, re-shingle the roof, add some modern conveniences like a dishwasher, add a den and bedroom (bringing it up to about 1,200 square feet), and freshen the landscaping. It would be a perfect little cottage to call home. So, he made a bid on it, the offer was accepted, and he put the property in escrow while he did his due diligence.
The conclusion: the city processes are so extreme it is not worth it.
First step: Hire an architect, an attorney, and an “entitlement” expert to “guide” him through the process. He and they will fill out hundreds of pages for his application, create tentative plans, take a year and spend about $100,000. Not an exaggeration.
Second step: While doing the first step, hire a city-designated “historical consultant” to determine if your intended home is an “historic resource.” There are only three or four city-designated “historic consultants” and they know two things: the city wants all structures designated “historical;” and being on the city list translates into steady work. So, they do what city staff wants and designate your property “historic.” Duh.
Third step: Appearance(s) before the Heritage Commission, composed of five City Council selected representatives whose main job, as they see it, is to induce you to self-designate your home into a separate category of extreme “historicity,” which designation means you never can change the house again. And you must forever maintain the house to city historic standards under threat of, get this, criminal penalties.
Fourth step: Appearances before the Design Review Board (DRB). Oh boy, good luck on that. Even the city’s own website states the DRB can be completely arbitrary. They can turn you down, or force you to change your plans, for any reason or no reason at all. And ask anyone who has been through it. One applicant, after dozens of appearances before the DRB, was told by its chairwoman that the application sucked, then the chairwoman, in a public DRB meeting, picked up the 4-inch thick applicant files, waltzed over to the waste basket, and threw them in.
Fifth step: Appearances before the city Planning Commission for the inevitable appeal(s).
Sixth step: Appearances before the City Council for the next step of inevitable appeal(s).
Seventh step: The architect creates working drawings that must be approved by city staff. Good luck on that, too. This step alone could take a year as the city person responsible for your plans keeps shifting and each new staffer emphasizes different things.
Eighth step: Build the damn thing. Ahh, you think this is easy? Obviously, you have not built a home here. The city inspectors also have arbitrary power and use it arbitrarily.
Drake found out all this during his due diligence, and that it would take several years, and came to the logical conclusion: not worth it.
Drake and Tricia bugged out.
The old people who control this municipality make war on young families. They truly, honestly believe they are saving the joint. They are wrong. They are destroying it. The young, professional, great families we should want—they are leaving. The rise in average age here, from 42 to 52 in less than 20 years (1990 to now), is not an accident and is not shared by other nearby towns, on the beach or otherwise. Only the city of Laguna makes war on young families.
Editor’s Note: The names have been changed in this column to protect the privacy of the individuals.
Michael Ray grew up in Corona del Mar and lives in Laguna Beach. He is a real estate entrepreneur involved in many nonprofits.