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Why Do They Move Here?

By Ann Christoph

It’s a high bar. House prices are higher for a smaller and older house than someone could buy elsewhere. Lots are small and neighborhoods are crowded. Traffic is difficult. Parking is challenging. Yet new Lagunans can’t wait to move in. Why?

I heard a new reason this weekend. Because we have a blower ordinance! “I work from home and where I live now there are blowers going every day, sometimes for six hours continuously. I just want peace and quiet. Yes, here neighbors are close, but it’s quiet, they all respect each other. Listen to the birds. I don’t hear that where I live now.”

And there’s the friendliness factor. “There I don’t see my neighbors. They drive into their garages and disappear. Here there are always people out on the streets, walking their dogs, saying hello.”

And there’s the assurance that we have design review, that neighbors will be listened to when a project is proposed that will impact the character of the neighborhood, the peace, quiet, and atmosphere in which friendliness grows.

So, these regulations that we’ve heard complaints about have a positive side. And in fact, may be essential parts of why living in Laguna is so valued.

But the complaints are indeed warranted—the process of dealing with permitting at City Hall is unnecessarily difficult—exasperating. The rules and the design review board get blamed, but in my experience it’s the management of the process. Are there too few planners to check plans? Counter staff is very polite and helpful, but why does it take 30 days to turn around a plan check for even the simplest request? Then there are often second and third plan check cycles, each of which can take 30 days.

In addition, there’s the conflict between the Coastal Commission and the city regarding the definition of “bluff edge” and “major remodel.” This means that a city approval with either of these components can be found to have a “substantial issue” when it’s appealed to the Coastal Commission. There have been 19 appeals filed on city approvals that involve these definition conflicts. This delay, just to deal with coastal staff and its approach, can be six months or more.

Council has asked staff to suggest changes to “streamline” the process. Staff’s March presentation included redesigning the permit counter, moving the sign-in computer, adding a counter supervisor position, and reviewing air conditioning installations administratively. While some of these changes could be helpful, they seem to skirt the basic problem—the length of time it takes to be approved to schedule a design review board hearing.

Staff also proposes reducing the scope of the design review board by transferring public works and commercial projects to the planning commission and changing the administrative design review process so that projects would be heard by staff with appeals directly to council.

The design review board is functioning well. Planning commission already has a full workload of planning projects and will soon be immersed in reviewing major hotel applications. Adding design review items to their workload, when the design review board is expert in handling these applications, seems counterproductive and has the potential to set up conflicting and confusing approaches to review.

When the design review board looked at the proposed changes last week, they questioned how staff would handle the changed administrative review for small items like patio covers, window changes, design changes during construction. Would staff go out and visit the sites as the board does? Meet with neighbors? How does a 2 p.m. hearing provide fair access for those at work? And even after staff had made a decision, would council really want to hear appeals on these minor items?

More to the point, even if all these questions can be resolved, how are these changes “streamlining?” How are they saving time for applicants, the public, or the staff?

Last on their list, but perhaps the most important, is working out a resolution of the two conflict areas with the Coastal Commission.

Staff has already implemented one of their suggestions—closing the counter early on Wednesday and Thursday. Their first idea was to close it early every day, but when council objected, they agreed to leave it open until 5:30 p.m. on Monday and Tuesday only.

When the public is very unhappy with how things are going, why would you make the first action you take reducing the service by closing early?

The work the design review board, designers and the public does is so important to keeping and enhancing the character of our community. We all want the processes to work more efficiently. We can’t let frustrations about delays cause inappropriate and ultimately ineffective changes that endanger the over-all goal—protecting those qualities that we love about our town and neighborhoods.

Council reviews the proposals on July 9.

 

Ann Christoph is a landscape architect and former mayor and member of the City Council.

 

 

 

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