Opinion: Village Matters

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Time is Money—But How Much?

ann christoph

How much time and how much money does it take to get permission to do a building project in Laguna Beach?

In 1939, the architect for the Laguna Beach Water District headquarters and many other favorite buildings in town, Aubrey St. Clair, designed the Tudor style commercial building at Third Avenue and Coast Highway. The client was A. Marney, a steam fitter from Buena Park who also had a home nearby in South Laguna. We know from newspaper articles that the contractor Arthur C. Wilson started construction in April 1939 and finished the building in August—just four months later. And with just three sheets of plans. And they did get permits—we found the electrical sign-off inside the original electrical panel. How could it possibly be finished so quickly? It was the end of the Great Depression and laborers were eager. There must have been no waiting around for skilled workers to show up. And the crews must have been familiar with St. Clair’s designs, the detailing and the expected quality. They could see from the elevations what was needed and their craftsmanship was devotedly applied. But four months to construct a three-story building with half timbering, brick and stone detailing, ornamental interior trusswork, and real plaster walls. That must have been amazing even then.

Now I’m told that just for a bedroom addition it can take take 20 sheets and two years to complete. City requirements are refined and made more elaborate—and for good reason. For example, when I was a councilmember in the early 1990s the council was agonizing with staff about requiring a site survey. Do we really want to require that? What about the added expense to the homeowner? Couldn’t they just use the plot plan in the city files? The answer was, “no”. In the city files there are back-of-envelope sketched out plans that were used for permits in former days, but they won’t pass muster now. There are just too many possible problems that can come from being vague about locations and elevations. The city decided to require surveys but for years they allowed them with a disclaimer saying that the boundaries were not recorded. So how do you measure setbacks or establish fence locations if you’re not sure where the property line is? These are just some examples of items that applicants have to address that were not required before. The necessity for these detailed requirements is rooted in the fact that most of Laguna Beach has not been developed in the manner prevalent in other communities where the development companies grade the land, establish the lot lines, build the streets and generally standardize the homesites. As inconvenient as that lack of standardization may be, it is key to the variety and character that we love about Laguna Beach.

Still there must be ways to make the processes at the planning and building counter more efficient.

Community Development Director Marc Wiener has been working on this since being hired in 2019.

Last October, he held a meeting to brief designers about his progress. Wiener said when he started he had hoped to turn the department around in a year, now he thinks it will take four-five years to get the ship righted. A streamlining program has been approved and we are starting to see more projects go to administrative design review instead of full board hearings. But the booming real estate market has increased the volume of permit requests, even as the pandemic made communication and normal workflow more difficult. He reported that some planners had a caseload of 80 applications. Staff resignations have exacerbated workload impacts. General Fund revenues from planning and building fees went from $716,000 in 2019-20 to $1,283,000 in 2021-22. All this has led to slow response to applications and repeated partial plan checks as staff struggles to keep up.

Staff’s proposal to update (increase) fees and add planning and building staff was deferred from last Tuesday’s city council meeting and now won’t be considered until the May 24 budget workshop. This gives time to consider key questions. For example, some proposed fees seem punitive rather than justified.

The present $748 fee for design review appeals to council is proposed to increase to $2,853 if appealing a 5-0 decision, $2,283 for a 4-1 decision, and $1,712 for a 3-2 decision. Does it really take over $1,000 more in staff time to respond to an appeal of a 5-0 decision compared to a 3-2 decision? In this case the proposed fees are set up to discourage appeals, not necessarily to recover cost of service.

Was the consultant’s fee study adequate considering the unusual impact of the pandemic on staff’s ability to respond? How can an efficiency evaluation be accomplished if there are no time and task records? For example, the consultant’s recommendation is that the city charge $4,075 for plan checking for Design Review, up from the $1,884 the city is charging now. The staff recommendation is to charge $2,553 as a compromise.

There is no real basis for evaluating these fee increases. There are no records of how many hours are spent on each reviewed project, by which planner, and doing what tasks. The consultant’s recommendation is based on costs involved in paying staff in general, including overhead costs and assigning them to the department “to ensure that the total service cost could be recovered through the fees.” Without time and task information it is not possible to understand if there are inefficiencies that should be corrected. Are there some tasks staffers are doing that are general in nature that we should not expect to be recovered by fees?

Staff simply dismisses the time and task evaluation tool as “challenging to track and administer,” when it is common professional practice. Law firms and design professionals base their invoices on hours recorded on time sheets or in the computer. Without that tool they couldn’t bill their clients. The city’s clients are community members and applicants for permits. If the city Is charging for services there should be back up information to justify those charges.

It’s good the city is considering all these issues and now is the time for public discussion. Village Laguna is offering an opportunity for the public to hear professionals’ thoughts on the permit process at its meeting at 6:30 p.m. on May 3 at the Community and Susi Q Senior Center. Architect Morris Skenderian and designer James Henry will be sharing experiences and suggestions. Having city hall working smoothly and efficiently benefits all. Let’s participate and contribute toward making that happen.

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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  1. So you think its unfair? When it has cost so many so little to object to the designs on other peoples property? . God forbid. That there could be a cost to the neighbor objecting to the design of the applicant. Why would you be for private property rights? I have no idea how you survive as a so called landscape architect when you have worked so hard to limit the rights of people to develop their property. Why do people hire you? So they can rely on not getting what they want? Time to retire I think. Just my opinion.

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