Less Laguna in Laguna?
“Less design review and less heritage is what we’re looking for,” pronounced Councilmember Peter Blake at the last council meeting.
Less oppressive bureaucracy, less mismanagement, less irritating treatment of the public—absolutely. But not less protection of the qualities that make Laguna, Laguna. Design review and heritage preservation are ways to respect our neighborhood character and community history—these are essential to preserve what we love about our town.
It’s not just a general/wave your arms thing, this furtherance of respect for Laguna’s best qualities. It necessarily gets into the details. That’s where it can get arbitrary-sounding and irritating. Resentment builds. Pretty soon there’s an uprising to throw out the whole system.
That’s where we are now.
Last week’s council meeting presented a perfect playbook of what happens when government has been unresponsive for far too long and a hard core of resentment has been festering.
First the council considered ways to make the Community Development Department run more smoothly. Staff came up with several pages of recommendations including software upgrades, questionnaires, more staff, more training and closing the counter at 4 p.m.
The public suggested other ideas like fixing relations with the Coastal Commission to prevent cases like the Lagunita remodel, whose owners were fined a million dollars at a Coastal appeal, providing opportunities for making appointments with staff to reduce wait times at the counter, facilitating quick rechecks, better coordination with the fire department to avoid the need for applicants to hire expensive and time-consuming consultants. These were not discussed by the council.
Fortunately, the council questioned the idea of the 4 p.m. closure. The city manager offered to limit the closing early idea to only a couple of days per week on a trial basis. I can see more confusion and frustration as unsuspecting applicants are turned away because of what they will see as a random closure.
How about improving some of the other aspects first, before experimenting with reducing service! Is there a sense of urgency? An understanding of how these bogged down, frustrating processes at city hall are not just inconveniences, they are jeopardizing our ability to control the integrity of our town?
Then was the discussion of the Historical Preservation Ordinance. This is another case of years of fumbling by the city in its efforts to implement historic preservation. The staff was more than 10 years late in understanding that the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) applied to historic resources. Then they weren’t sure how to implement it. This caused much confusion for both applicants and for those dedicated to historic preservation. Since 2014 the city and the public have been working on how to make a clear ordinance that fairly and effectively preserves historic resources.
The Heritage Committee, Design Review Board, and Planning Commission all worked on it. All were confronted with a barrage of complaints about how applications have been dealt with in the past—as well as with the suggestions by those who want to see historic preservation work. A Task Force was formed by the council when it was clear there was no support for the Planning Commission’s version.
Then at the Task Force’s first meeting, Councilmember Steve Dicterow asked the city attorney to come up with the minimum historic preservation program that would still comply with state laws. The city attorney answered that the city is required to follow the CEQA guidelines if there is substantial evidence of a potential for a structure to be historic. Instead of following the city attorney’s advice, the council took an opposite approach and voted to make historic preservation voluntary.
A property would only be considered a historic resource if the owner wants it to be. Do we leave it up to individuals to decide if they are speeding? Whether their building is higher than permitted? If they have a watercourse on their property? There are objectively decided standards that can ascertain these factors. A historic resource is defined the same way.
In their rush down the path of voluntariness, the council hesitated to even consider buildings like the Hotel Laguna and the South Coast Theater as historic resources.
That’s how far we have fallen in an over-reaction to a build-up of discontent. Those who want to develop our town take advantage of our frustrations with our city’s processes.
Unfortunately, they will not only make it easier for themselves to get their projects approved, they endanger the whole system of protections that have kept Laguna unique and special. That damage can be forever if we don’t stand up for our town now.
Ann Christoph is a landscape architect and former mayor and member of the City Council. She currently serves on the Village Laguna board of directors.