Musings on the Coast

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By Michael Ray
By Michael Ray

The Front Porch: NannyVille

Laguna Beach is paradise and we want to keep it that way. To do so, over the years we created a series of laws, commissions and public bodies, each with admirable intentions. Sadly but predictably, most followed the usual Darwinian imperative and expanded their reach until our blithe-spirited little paradise became NannyVille.

No longer are we the City of the Arts. We are the City of the Nanny.  The Nanny is everywhere, telling us what we can do—or more accurately, what we cannot do, which is almost everything unique.

A growing number of locals hate it and I am one of them. As a way of exploring one of NannyVille’s many overreaches, I’m taking you on a journey—nay, a quest—to add a front porch to a duplex. Here is the story:

I bought a beat up old cottage. It has no historic value, but still was added to the city’s Historic Registry because it was deemed to add to the “historic character” of the neighborhood.

Homes falling into that category are “saved” by not allowing any changes to the front of the house regardless of whether that front has any historic merit. According to the city’s historic consultant, my house does not.

There is no existing front porch on the house even though front porches were intended by the original master plan for the neighborhood. That was a design blunder; it rendered the cottage mundane. When I build the new duplex, I want to add a front porch.

Said little cottage is located on Hawthorne Road near Pavilion’s in north Laguna. The previous owner had entitled it for conversion into a duplex, but ran into financial trouble and sold to me.

I am a land developer with enough experience to know, with certainty, good master planning from bad. Laguna got lucky: its old areas have brilliant master planning.

That is because most old Laguna neighborhoods contain alleys bisecting the neighborhood streets. Let me explain.

Normally, developers cram as many houses as they can onto the land, which means garages and garage aprons face the street. The aprons and the cars parked on them isolate one home from the next, one family from the next, and they are ugly. Go to any neighborhood in Irvine, Fountain Valley, or Mission Viejo, and that is what you see. It is boring, mediocre and alienating, but accepted practice because the goal of developers is profit, not great planning.

This is where alleys come in. They use much more land and developers hate them. But in such communities, cars park from the alleys in back, not the frontage. It means garage aprons and cars do not clutter the frontages. Virtually any master-planner will opine this method is so superior there is no real comparison. Families actually use the front yards. Neighborhood kids play together effortlessly; families easily interact; it is friendly. And most of the houses have front porches where neighbors sit, gossip and have a sip.   Remember that: the front porch is key. It brings people outside.

In Laguna, most of the old neighborhoods are blessed with this alley-themed master planning. If you walk among these neighborhoods, you see the front porches and people relaxing and chatting with neighbors.

It is why I want to add a front porch to my duplex.   It is in one of those magical neighborhoods and it is what the original master-planning intended.

But there is that one tiny problem. In the early 1980s, the City commissioned a study to determine which homes should be on the Historic Registry.   My home was found not to qualify because it was just another boring cottage with no particular historic value. That did not thwart the historic consultant. In a display of bureaucratic jiujutsu, she placed it on the Historic Registry because she thought it added to the “historic character” of the neighborhood. It was a judgment call. It was subjective. It could be ignored if the city so chose.

The city did not so choose. Instead, it followed the national guidelines, which are only guidelines, not rules nor absolutes, and may be ignored, and it disallowed the prior owner from adding a front porch to his duplex entitlements. It ruled that the old front of the house, which is a visual bore, could not be changed.

The city’s Heritage Committee made this ruling. In so ruling, it ignored the character of the neighborhood and the original intent of the masterplan. It also ignored what is best for families, community vitality and good taste.

I intend to fight the good fight and add a front porch.   My architect, Anders Lassiter, assures me I am on a fool’s errand, but I do not care. I make my living as a builder and I am a relative expert on such matters and it deeply offends me bureaucratic bullying is thwarting great master planning. Stay tuned.

Michael Ray grew up in Corona del Mar and now lives in Laguna Beach.  

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  1. So sad how the city won’t let a inviting front porch go up and they could care less about the jerks who leave their house with plywood as the outside for years!


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