Oceanfront Owners Facing New Remodel Rules


Under rules proposed by the California Coastal Commission staff, reroofing an ocean front home and replacing framing ridden with dry rot could be considered a major remodel and trigger a 25-foot setback rule, which would require Mark Spencer to lop off a quarter of his Laguna Beach house.

Scenarios such as this prompted Laguna’s city staff to dispute the coastal staff’s proposed revisions, which include new criteria for what constitutes a major coastal remodel and new non-conformity provisions that would likely threaten private beach access stairs from bluff top homes.

Despite numerous meetings with Coastal Commission staff since 2011, city staff has made little headway in attempting to persuade their counterparts to relax suggested measures viewed locally as too stringent.

The looming changes prompted Community Development Director John Montgomery to flag the dispute for Laguna’s 800-plus waterfront property owners, notifying them of a hearing on the matter in January. “To me, it was the only fair way to do it,” he said.

A Laguna contingent, this time including two Council members and two planning commission members, met again with coastal staffers in Long Beach last week. Planning Manager Ann Larson hoped that bringing Laguna’s decision makers to the table might erode the coastal staff’s intransigence. But the meeting didn’t yield a compromise, and Montgomery expects more deliberations.

Laguna’s City Council inadvertently opened the Pandora’s box in 2011 by approving an ordinance to redefine “major remodel” rules, among other things. Coastal staff apparently seized the opportunity to accelerate their own voter-approved 1972 mandate to conserve coastal resources by tweaking Laguna’s development rules.

When the city modifies laws affecting coastal development, its local coastal plan must reflect those revisions and be certified by the Coastal Commission. A certified local coastal program serves as a road map for permissible development and allows property owners to obtain permits locally, bypassing the Coastal Commission.

The Coastal Commission examines a city’s modifications for compliance with the California Coastal Act before approving certification. Sometimes coastal staff will add their own language, and usually the city agrees.

Not this time. Two years into deliberations, city and coastal staff continue to dispute key points of revised remodel rules for prized oceanfront homes.

The Coastal Commission’s policies are intended to combat sea level rise and bluff erosion and strengthen shoreline protections, said Larson. The coastal staff aims to bring nonconforming structures into conformance statewide by acting incrementally, wielding their pens on amendments to local coastal plans that involve major remodels.

Laguna is one of the first coastal jurisdictions pressured under this tactic. So far no other city has yet incorporated the commission’s remodel rules into their code.

Montgomery said the proposed policy changes would make it very difficult for staff to help residents navigate minor remodels.

The most onerous recommendation would require city staff to cumulatively track remodeling in every oceanfront home for 75 years, instead of the current three-year period. If a homeowner undertook a 40 percent remodel in 2014 and then a new owner opted for a 10 percent change 20 years later, that would trigger a major remodel designation. The new owner would be required to conform to current building standards, such as setbacks 25 feet from bluffs and removal of beach access stairs.

“It’s hard to keep track of anything over 10 years, much less 40 years,” said Montgomery. “It would be a nightmare.”

Another point of contention is the coastal staff’s definition of changes that should be included when calculating remodel percentages. They want to include interior walls as well as roof and foundation repairs in the remodel calculation, while city staff would consider some cases to be “repair and maintenance” and exempt from contributing to the remodel percentage.

“My place being 100 years old, I suspect it may have some termite damage,” Robert Harker said of his Victoria Beach home. “If I have to look to some kind of 75-year control beyond where I am now, that doesn’t make any sense at all to me.”

The proposed rules will be difficult for architects, realtors, and owners trying to explain to a new buyer what is permissible, said local architect Morris Skenderian.

Coastal staff stipulations would also threaten established nonconforming structures, such as beach access stairs, a surefire point of contention with homeowners, said Montgomery. The city allows for routine maintenance, repair and even minor improvements for such structures, but the new recommendations would likely require coastal development permits.

The coastal staff also proposed that all new development on oceanfront sites be subject to a coastal hazard analysis and to a minimum 25-foot setback. City staff believes there should be exceptions for minor developments such as decks, patios and walkways.

“This is very disconcerting,” said Richard Bracamonte, who hopes to rebuild his Victoria Drive home. He can comply with the 25-foot setback for the main structure, but he envisioned balconies that would encroach on the setback, as neighbors have done. Now he’s not sure they’ll be allowed.

The city can circumvent the stalemate with a remodel ordinance that isn’t certified by the Coastal Commission, but then any development subject to the ordinance could be challenged with an appeal to the Coastal Commission.

Or Laguna can submit a revised ordinance for certification that omits objectionable coastal staff language. In that event, Montgomery predicts the commission might well dictate a compromise that, finally, “may not be palatable to the city, is the bottom line.”

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