Opinion: Village Matters

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Forces at Work

ann christoph

The forces of the 21st century are at work to compromise and destroy what we love about Laguna Beach. We have housing pressures, fire department vegetation removals, proposals for our historic landmarks—all of these were on the Planning Commission agenda this week. Along with the emergency-think of the pandemic fight we have a competing scramble of effects that threaten to overpower our delicately balanced community.

Internationally esteemed urban planner Andrés Duany, when he was interviewed to work on our downtown specific plan, urged Lagunans to “vaccinate” against the impacts he saw ahead.

“This is a place of extraordinary character and a very delicate and fragile character… built over time by very unusual people. The evidence is all around you. It’s immersive… it’s informal, funky.  At the same time it’s composed. …This kind of place is very fragile and very, very subject to destruction by the 20th and 21st century. Everything that happens out of here, whether it be the traffic, whether it be the regulatory environment of California that forbids the building of a place like this. You can’t build this place any more, it’s actually illegal, in almost every detail.  The California regulations… actually are continually trying to improve this place, to make it sort of work better, but it won’t do that, you will lose it… The role here might be one to understand what can go wrong with a place like this and sort of vaccinate it—you know, to prevent actually losing it.”

The tools we have had in place over the years to immunize our town from inappropriate changes are under attack, both locally and from statewide edicts.

Zoning controls on height, density, setbacks, design, parking and provisions for neighborhood input are being overridden by state mandates limiting city review on accessory dwelling units (ADUs), and lot splits in single family neighborhoods. These measures provide for ministerial (staff) review rather than the discretionary reviews that often apply under city codes. By voiding discretionary reviews the provisions also prevent application of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and public hearings on granting of coastal development permits. The legislature says that this overriding of local control is to ensure “access to affordable housing,” yet they make no provision that the housing produced by these measures is affordable, or even rented.

The state-required Housing Element update considered by the Planning Commission is required to provide sites for the “Regional Housing Needs Assessment” (RHNA) quotas of housing units.  Laguna Beach’s requirement is 394 housing units. The city doesn’t have to actually provide the housing, but must identify sites and plan for them. The sites in the proposed Element include 68 (49 low, 19 moderate income) units off Sunset Avenue on the hillside above the hospital, 13 units at 770 Hillcrest Drive (Pyne Castle), 147 (37 low income) at 350 Artisan Drive (El Toro Road north of the 73), 31 low income units at 340 St. Ann’s Drive (Congregational Church), 30 units at 21632 Wesley Drive (Methodist Church), and 37 units at 305-397 North Coast Hwy (north of the Art Museum).

The Housing Element also projects the creation of 120 Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) in the next eight years, producing 30 very low, 52 low, 36 moderate, and two above-moderate units.  Of course as mentioned there is no way to control the affordability of the new ADUs.

All this should total the state-required 394 new housing units.

The CEQA analysis concludes with a negative declaration saying that the Housing Element contains policies and programs related to the development of housing, but no actual construction, so no environmental impacts would result. Thus the impacts of building 68 housing units on the steep hillside behind the hospital, with its Southern Maritime chaparral vegetation, and circuitous vehicular access, or the neighborhood impacts of the other projected sites, have not been considered.

Once those impacts are analyzed along with financial constraints it seems unlikely that many of those units will actually be built. Will this plan satisfy the state? Or will new dictums be imposed to override our sensible approaches to accounting for Laguna’s limitations on extensive new developments?

Laguna Beach has a higher than normal vacancy rate, of 18.2 % due partly to second homes. On my street alone there are four vacant units, in this case due to owners who just prefer not to rent them. Could we get some credit for our “quota” if we had a program to reduce the vacancy rate and provide needed housing by encouraging owners to rent apartments and houses like those? The Housing and Human Services Committee is also considering a housing trust that could accept and manage bequests of houses to meet community housing needs long term.

Perhaps we need a booster shot—thinking of creative ways to meet housing goals within the framework of our existing village—not succumbing to the state-imposed pressures to standardize housing solutions.

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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