Musings on the Coast

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The Fix Is In

By Michael Ray
By Michael Ray

“A camel is a horse designed by committee.”  Anonymous

“If Columbus had an advisory committee he would probably still be at the dock.”   Arthur Goldberg

Laguna used to be the city of diversity, a place where strange ideas could bloom, Timothy Leary, the Boom Boom Room, thriving gay culture, “secret” nude beaches, Bohemian parties, rum runners and their hiding places, world famous plein-air artists, eccentrically wonderful architecture, The Greeter, martinis at midnight on the sand, the Greenwich Village of Orange County—–are you different?  We want you.

All that either has been or is being killed.

It has to do with committees.

Laguna Beach is full of committees appointed by the City Council. Most are well meaning: hey, might be a good idea, let’s appoint a committee to study it.  But, and this is the big but, those committees have resulted in so much over-regulation they are killing Laguna.

Let’s take a special look at the architectural process in Laguna.  If you want to remodel your home, guess how many committees you might need to endure to get a building permit.  Come on, guess.   Would you believe four?   Yup, four.

“A committee is a cul-de-sac down which good ideas are lured and quietly strangled.” Barnett Cocks.

First, your house may be on the Historic Inventory.  The Inventory was created almost 40 years ago and you cannot get off it; the City Council won’t let you (I know, I tried). If you are on it, you face the Heritage Commission, which must approve your design. None of its members are specialists at what an “historic” structure is; they simply were appointed by the City Council and the same group/group-think has ruled it for 20 years.

Fun fact: The Heritage Commission has no set rules; there is nothing in writing that can guide you, as in, “if you do X, you will be approved.”   Your plans are at their whim and their whim is arbitrary.

“The possession of arbitrary power has always…tended irresistibly to destroy humane sensibility, magnanimity and truth” Frederick Law Olmstead.

After they are done, you face the Design Review Board (DRB).   Talk about arbitrary; they define it.  They are famous for having no set rules. Their decisions might require you to return to their panel a dozen times and take years.  They bury you in minutiae like what shade of white you may paint your front door (not an exaggeration). Their members also are appointed by the City Council and their composition/mind set has not changed in 20 years.

After another year, you make it through the DRB process.   You think, finally, I am done. Nope. Now you may face the Planning Commission, also basically composed of the same people/mind-set for the last 20 years and also with arbitrary power.

Six months later, it finishes punishing you.  What then? Well, hell, you may go to the ultimate committee, City Council.   It’s the same thing all over again.  Swell.

After two or three or six years, you are exhausted.   You’ve spent appalling amounts of time and money. You have given in and given up. During the whole process, you’ve been at war with some of your neighbors who have weighed in against your project because they can.  By now you hate them and they hate you.

But gasp, finally, you can remodel your house. However a lot of people don’t; they think this place sucks and they leave.

I wouldn’t build a building if it wasn’t of interest to me as a potential work of art.  Dullness is the enemy.” Philip Johnson

You are astute. Let me ask you a question.   Can you name one structure built in Laguna in the last decade that can be defined asgreat  architecture? Just one. I bet you can’t.  All great designs have been dulled down. The city committees killed them.

Wait! There is more. The city just appointed a historic preservation task force. Its purpose: to propose an ordinance by which every structure over 50 years old could be on the Historic Inventory.   Effectively, that means every building in Laguna.

I applied for membership on the task force and gave a spiel on my qualifications and ideas to the Council selection committee; I opined adding one’s home to an historic inventory should be completely voluntary.

Was I appointed? Are you kidding?  They appointed the same people they always appoint, the people who created the problems in the first place.

Frank Gehry, perhaps America’s most famous and significant living architect, would not work in Laguna.

“I won’t do architecture that’s dry and dull.”  Frank Gehry

Last fun fact. Any house on the historic inventory loses between 20 and 50 percent of its value. Reason: it places severe limitations on what you, or anyone, can do with the house—forever. Total loss to city homeowners: multiples of billions.

The City Council does not care.  Its own actions prove it.

The fix is in.


Michael Ray grew up in Corona del Mar and lives in Laguna Beach. He is a real estate entrepreneur involved in many non-profits.






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