Opinion: Clearing up “Confusion” over New Blufftop Development Standards

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 By Catherine Jurca

On March 21, the city manager cited public “confusion” as the reason to postpone council’s vote to change Laguna’s blufftop development standards. I wonder how many residents were, like me, less confused than upset—at the extent of the proposed changes, potential environmental impacts, and poor public outreach.

Under the proposed changes, qualifying properties could receive a “site-specific blufftop setback or encroachment,” which would be “more than zero” but less than the current, mandatory 25-foot setback (March 7 Staff Report, pp. 2, 5). A property would need to fall into a “low erosion” category, which most oceanfront properties in Laguna potentially do, and otherwise be “safe from geologic hazards” for seventy-five years. In addition, projects would have to meet other criteria, including compatibility with the natural and built environment and with “historical” and/or “existing” development patterns—staff uses these words interchangeably despite different meanings (pp. 148-149).

A number of residents have objected to the proposal’s optimistic reliance on today’s science to gauge vulnerability because the hallmark of climate change is unpredictability. I share these concerns but focus here on others.

Taken together, the many changes seem designed to maximize development potential along our coast while reducing environmental protections. Staff also propose redefining a major remodel to add as much as 50 percent of the existing building, allowing properties to expand significantly without addressing non-conforming conditions, even though these conditions often impact environmentally sensitive areas like bluffs.

The changes specifically reduce environmental protections by eliminating existing language that requires an initial study under CEQA for all development in environmentally sensitive areas. Staff also proposes removing mandatory design review for all blufftop properties, although these properties have unique importance and visual and aesthetic impacts that many others in Laguna do not.

Staff dismisses legitimate and obvious environmental concerns. The staff report claims the proposed changes are exempt from the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) because there would be “no possible significant effect on the environment.” They are also exempt as “actions by regulatory agencies (i.e., the Coastal Commission) for protection of natural resources…and the environment” (p. 10). Increasing development hardly constitutes environmental protection, and eliminating environmental review requirements could obviously have a significant effect.

As is the case here, most changes to Laguna’s policy documents must be certified by the coastal commission. In such instances, the burden of CEQA compliance shifts to the commission, which is not required to prepare environmental impact reports or negative declarations. In the past, the commission has relied on the city’s own environmental reviews; it is potentially very damaging for staff to suggest that changes of this magnitude are exempt from the state’s landmark environmental law.

The good news is that a majority of council seemed skeptical that the changes could not have an adverse effect on the environment, and they were likewise reluctant to yield the environmental review process wholly to the commission.

The justification offered for the changes is unpersuasive. Staff claims they would reduce the number of appeals, but it is unclear how a process that starts with a scientific study but comes down to highly subjective criteria such a compatibility would accomplish that. They also state the changes would avoid “taking” private property. However, since 1978 in Penn Central Transportation Co. v. New York City, the Supreme Court has found that environmental safeguards that limit development potential do not constitute a “taking.” The city already has discretion with the 25-foot setback if use of a property is precluded (p. 5).

Current staff leadership has been more reluctant than their predecessors to involve the public in such important policy changes. At the March 7 first reading of the ordinance, the director of community development responded to criticisms of public outreach by referring to two previous planning commission hearings and a posting on the department webpage. He also, however, pointed to an “architect and builder working group” that had received “email blasts along the way” as evidence that “there has been a lot of outreach for this.” Public outreach implies efforts to engage and consult the general public, not simply those who are in a position to profit from the changes.

I am not confused. These drastic changes would likely result in substantial impacts on our precious and unique coastline. They are certainly not exempt from CEQA review, and the city should both revisit the details, consulting a group larger than architects and builders and ensure that it does its own environmental analysis. Of course, there should not be barriers to maintaining, repairing and restoring existing oceanfront properties. But that is not what these changes address.

The next hearing is scheduled for April 4. I hope you will make your thoughts known.

Catherine is a professor of visual culture and English at Caltech. She lives part-time in Laguna Beach and advocates for the preservation of the city’s architectural and cultural heritage.

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