Opinion: A win for Laguna Beach property owners, but a fight remains


By Dan Rosenthal

Just last week, after an exhaustive City permitting process that lasted three years and a lawsuit that lasted another year and a half, justice was finally served for Laguna property owners and the Kirby family. On May 20, Orange County Superior Court Judge Randall J. Sherman ruled that the City had acted properly in its review and approval of the Kirbys’ plans to renovate their historic home in North Laguna.

The City and the Kirbys were sued by the Historic Architecture Alliance and the Laguna Beach Historic Preservation Coalition, two tiny organizations with indisputable ties to Village Laguna. Their premise was that the City and the Kirbys had failed to properly apply CEQA law and that, if allowed to proceed, the Kirbys’ renovation would cause irreparable harm to a historic resource. After a thorough review of the “entire record”, Judge Sherman forcefully disagreed and found their claims to be without merit.

There are several lessons to be learned from this lawsuit and decision:

1. Our voices carry weight. When we speak during the public comment portions of Design Review Board, Planning Commission, Heritage Committee, and City Council meetings, or submit letters to them, our words become valuable pieces of the “entire record” that must be considered by each of those bodies when deciding an issue that comes before them. Likewise, Judge Sherman was obligated to decide this lawsuit only after reviewing the “entire record” of the permit application process, including all our comments.

2. Beware when people show up to speak against your project. These folks aren’t there because they have nothing better to do. They are there to help create a part of the “entire record” that will hopefully provide a judge in a future lawsuit with compelling reasons to overturn a decision made by one or more of our city agencies that they don’t like. It’s vitally important that you be on the record as well with strong facts in support of your position that will stand up in court. This isn’t a game of patty-cake.

3. The permitting process is long for a reason. Because there are so many laws in California that must be followed, particularly with regard to historic resources, the City must proceed slowly to build a complete record just to be sure that one, it makes the right decisions along the way, and two, that it doesn’t get sued for making missteps. And even if it follows the law perfectly, many Laguna residents will sue anyway. Surprise, surprise.

4. Defending our rights isn’t cheap. In order to defend themselves against this misguided effort, the Kirbys and the City have collectively spent nearly $100,000. In addition, according to City Attorney Phil Kohn, thru February the City has spent more than $45,000 defending its passage of the new Historic Preservation Ordinance against a suit brought by Village Laguna. Just think what that money could have done had it been spent on buying books for our library or drawing up plans for its renovation.

5. Democracy is not a spectator sport. If we don’t fight to keep our rights, we’ll surely lose them. This is certainly true in Laguna Beach. Several initiatives will appear on the ballot this November, not the least of which comes in the form of the Laguna Residents First Ballot Initiative. If allowed to pass, this 18-page blunderbuss, like the weapon, will create so much collateral damage that it will likely slay more innocent bystanders than dragons. The authors encourage you to read it. I absolutely agree. Then compare it to the existing City Code sections it is trying to obliterate and make up your own mind. If we sit in the bleachers on this one, the unintended consequences of its passage will put not only the life of our City in jeopardy, but our physical lives as well. The Kirbys set a good example for us. We should follow it.

Dan is a Laguna Beach Heritage Committee member and co-founder of Laguna Neighbors for Saving Properties and Families.

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  1. Mr Rosenthal makes many good points about being involvemed in civic affairs and making sure one’s voice is heard on topics of importance, including property rights. For me, his piece runs off of the rails in point 5, where he attempts to confuse readers by mentioning the LRF ballot initiative in the context of resident property rights. The LRF initiative is completely silent on single-family (R1) or R2 (duplex) properties; this attempt at fear mongering is hamfisted at best and dishonest at worst. The LRF Ballot Initiative only applies to proposed large commercial developments (incl apartment buildings of 10 or more units), and intensification of existing commercial spaces. Period. And within this context, the BI provides wide REASONABLE latitude before a public vote would be triggered. As for creating “collateral damage” we believe that by its establishing clear boundaries for such development or intensification, its passage will encourage less developer over-reach and hence a faster and cheaper approvals process.

  2. Unfortunately, Dan leaves a lot out of this narrative. Including the fact that the City Code can be overturned at will by a bloc of just three pro-development, pro-business, pro-tourism City Council members – all of whom have received generous political contributions from developers and commercial property owners – vested interests who have consistently put profits first and residents dead last.

    For instance, the City Council’s actions of not requiring commercial landlords to provide parking as required by the Downtown Specific Plan has resulted in major parking problems. The Heisler Building downtown – the single largest commercial building downtown after the Hotel Laguna – should be providing for 170 parking spaces, but the City Council has said it doesn’t have to provide any. Nada. Zip. Zero. And this even after granting the building a height-restriction-busting roof deck. This is just one of many cases where the City Council is acting irresponsibly. And people wonder why parking is being jammed into neighborhoods and why the City Council wants taxpayers to pay for parking structures that largely profit commercial businesses and commercial property owners?

    There are many other abuses being placed upon residents that the Laguna Residents First ballot initiative seeks to correct.

    There are many good reasons the Laguna Residents First Ballot Initiative is 18 pages long – it is the only ballot initiative that eliminates all the loop holes, weasel clauses, cronyism and back room political insider deals by allowing residents to vote on and approve of Laguna’s largest commercial projects (and I do mean major, massive projects – not the small or residential ones, as opponents would love you to believe). Residents would finally get some say in the scope, scale and character of their community – not just developers, commercial property owners and the politicians they’ve funded.

    Contrary to Mr. Rosenthal’s conjecture that there will be catastrophic collateral damage to the community – it’s just the opposite. Instead, developers and commercial owners will be made accountable for retaining reasonable, human-scale growth that enriches the community instead of catering only to the unrestrained profiteering that is designed to increase tourist traffic at the residents’ expense.

    One only needs to look at what’s going on in Dana Point and Huntington Beach to see what results from uncontrolled growth. Especially in Huntington Beach, where developers have created a circus environment for rowdy revelers.

    If Mr. Rosenthal’s prognostications are so dire, I would appreciate his explanation why Costa Mesa, Newport Beach and – sadly and belatedly – Dana Point have all passed highly successful similar initiatives.

    I have no idea what Mr. Rosenthal’s agendas may be (hidden or otherwise), but I can tell you this – the Laguna Residents First ballot initiative is the one and only initiative that will give residents a say in the potential overdevelopment of Laguna. Despite what anyone else says (and I do mean anyone), it is the only insurance policy residents have that can prevent overdevelopment. Period. End stop.


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