Opinion: Village Matters

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It ain’t fixed yet

By Ann Christoph

Sorry, I don’t have a fish emulsion follow-up story this week. Even though I get stopped on the street with questions, I have nothing new to report. This column’s in a different vein.  

Another city planning staff person is leaving the city—the zoning and Design Review Board administrator. 

This follows the exit of many staffers we were just getting to know—who may have just begun to know us and our city.

It’s not just the repeated “getting to know you” periods that we endure. It’s the mistakes that are made before years of experience guide staffers to give the helpful overall perspective that decision-makers need.

Former design review board member Barbara Metzger recalls planner Jack Connors introducing proposals with staff’s perspective on important items to consider. “Generally, we didn’t have written staff reports, but we had a detailed introduction from him. He knew everything! If there was history he thought we should be aware of, he emphasized it. He was interested in all of this stuff. He was on the city’s side of the issues. The planning director June Catalano walked the board around town, pointing out issues of concern to the city. She was all for the city policies. Following the rules was what we did.”

Now, staff seems to have been trained to make the applicant’s case.

Today, even though we have written staff reports, they usually conclude with a recommendation that there is a “categorical exemption” from the California Environmental Quality Act requirements and the project should be approved. Often staff does not seem to be enthusiastic about our general plan’s basic goals, such as to “encourage the preservation of historically significant residential structures and protect the character-defining components of Laguna Beach’s traditional neighborhoods.” To be fair, this may be the result of four years of pounding on the department to facilitate applications and process plans as quickly as possible. But that shouldn’t just mean saying “yes” to applicants more often, although that may be easier. It should also mean applying overall policies consistently and guiding applicants expeditiously to conform with them in the interest of the overall welfare of the city.

For example, in considering the fate of a formerly “key” rated historical house on Aster last week, hidden in the staff report was “the Design Review Board can determine that the home constitutes a significant historic resource on the basis of substantial evidence in the record.” 

Yet when board members asked staff about historic status, staff replied, “It’s not a historic resource,” even though the historic resources consultant found the property to meet multiple criteria to be listed in the Laguna Beach Historic Register. Even more damaging to our historic preservation efforts, the applicant complimented staff on encouraging him to demolish the house and “design something you really want.” This even though he had previously agreed with the Heritage Committee to preserve the façade and after all of council’s assurances that the city would continue to encourage historic preservation and that their changes to the ordinance would not result in the demolition of historic properties.

We are living with the results of these misguided staff recommendations. The staffer who recommended approval of the additions to the Kirby’s historic property without the normal conferring with the historical consultant is now long gone. 

But the problem lives on—the applicant has been held up with a lawsuit on this very issue. 

The Administrative Design Review staff decision to approve 1902 Ocean Way historic house remodeling, despite objections at the hearing, is another example. Ordinarily, such projects are referred to the regular Design Review Board. Instead, staff summarily approved it, requiring an appeal to the city council for further review at $2,000. Now there is a second related component of the same project that, by law and common sense, should have been considered at the same time. 

Staff knew about it before the city council reviewed the first part but said nothing. Now there will be another hearing at council. These convoluted procedures are not in the public interest.

Is staff making these recommendations because they don’t know better or don’t care, or are they leaving because they know what is right and are being pressured from above to approve projects inconsistent with Laguna’s policies and guidelines or state law? What city hall is doing is broken, and we’re still waiting for it to be fixed.

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

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2 COMMENTS

  1. Great topic and great questions. I have been concerned about our increasing city employee turn-over rate for years. Especially since 2018 when LB turnover rate was at 8.40%.

    While the City discounts the concern by comparing us to a “national employee turnover rate”, the last comparison of the two in 2021 shows LB rate @ 16.47% vs National @ 20.2%. Basically we doubled the turnover rate in four years. For those who deal with city hall regularly this employee instability has resulted in decision mistakes, controversy and lawsuits. Collectively, this is harmful to our city.

    It’s a serious issue when new/inexperienced staff making impactful recommendations aren’t familiar with policies and cannot answer related and relevant questions on projects. Seems like pushing projects through is the goal at City Hall today. I’ve often been confused by who staff is representing during their presentations and the same for some Boards and Commission members. The lack of training on CEQA is a perfect example.

    Regarding staff separations: The city council and the public must understand why our employees are leaving. Especially those within a 1-3 year period and in public safety fields and management level positions. Exit interviews should be conducted by HR only and employee separations (retirements, terminations, resignations/other) tracked and reasons for leaving documented to identify and improve turnovers. We are a small city with a substantial budget and we pay our employees very well. We need to know why they aren’t choosing to work in our city government.

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