Opinion: Village Matters


Time to Collaborate?

ann christoph

By Ann Christoph

Patience and persistence—these two qualities are necessary in large amounts to cope with getting permits at City Hall. Talk to people who have tried to get permits, both in the past and recently and you will hear tales of frustration, delays and miscommunication.

In the past three years at the urging of the public and Council there has been a lot of effort put into “streamlining.” The goal of streamlining was to make changes to the Community Development Department’s processes to make obtaining permits easier and faster. So far the streamlining changes have resulted in more projects being sent to administrative design review, and planning staff and the fire department are being allowed to approve certain plans without design (or public) review. These changes reduce the scope of work of the Design Review Board and give staff more authority, but are applicants saying their permit experience is better? The streamlining measures don’t address the core problem.

Something is deeply wrong with the Community Development department and its procedures between the time of submitting plans to zoning and going to design review, and after zoning and design review and actually obtaining permits. In-person encounters with staff reveal people earnestly trying to do a good job—but somehow the total result is lacking.

There are complaints about reviews taking too long, partial reviews causing repeat submittals, lost plans, lost emails, and communication gaps among staff.  The confusion caused by City Hall closures during COVID-19 have made communication and submittals even more difficult.

These difficulties are discouraging to project proponents and they result in some contractors and owners simply not getting permits at all. They also disillusion people who would like to support many of the City’s initiatives and participate in positive community improvements. Bad experiences at the counter could lead to citizens being negative about whatever the City is trying to do. Not helpful for community spirit and good government.

Staff turnover is a continuing issue and is one of the obvious causes of some of these problems.  Key staffers have retired or left for preferred positions in other agencies. Laguna Beach’s regulations and policies are complicated and it takes awhile to understand them so that staff can properly advise applicants. This makes keeping experienced staff critical to running an efficient permitting process, but for years staff retention has been a problem. Right now the department is short two planners. This puts pressure on the remaining staff, who become overloaded. This could lead to their leaving also.

These statements from about-to-leave devoted and conscientious staff people stick in my mind, “My health is more important than staying in this job.”  “This city is wonderful, but the management…”

Now we have new management, we have questionnaires after an encounter at city hall.  Will there be improvements? What’s to be done?

In the past the City Council appointed citizen task forces to address specific problems. These have served as successful forums for exploring issues in detail—Laguna Canyon Flood Control, Design Review, Laguna Canyon Road. Local people familiar with the subject matter were appointed and members of the public could participate in the meetings. Now such task forces are not part of our Council’s approach. For example, the Fire Preparedness program meetings were done by the Mayor and Mayor pro tem with the Fire Chief, and there was no public participation.

Collaboration is better than complaining. There are many “experts” in going through the permit process at City Hall (architects, contractors, homeowners).  So far staff has not solved this problem after years of trying. Is it time to consult with those who know this process best through an officially appointed Permit Process Task Force?

Ann is a landscape architect and former Laguna Beach mayor. She is also a long-time board member of Village Laguna, Inc.

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