Village Matters


Design Review Heroes


Do you remember the “white house” controversy? The city debate on off-white vs. white paint for a design-reviewed house became fodder for talk radio. Or when the county newspapers published photos of Design Review Board members’ homes and compared them to the houses they were critiquing.  How about when a board member was lambasted for what was interpreted as a sarcastic comment about the merits of small houses? “After all, Beaver and Wally shared a bedroom,” he noted, referring to the 1950-60s family sit-com “Leave it to Beaver.”


These incidents raised cries to abolish Design Review, curtail its powers, or somehow get the board members to change their ways.


It has been a long road, and two task forces have been asked to work on the issue.  The first, called by council member Kathleen Blackburn in 1993, concentrated on ways to make the review standards more specific and less reliant on subjective evaluation.  The conclusion was that while some of the rules could be better explained, we still needed site-specific design review to account for the uniqueness of Laguna’s properties and neighborhoods.  As a result, a series of improvements and clarifications to the design review ordinance were adopted.


In 2004 council member Cheryl Kinsman suggested a task force that would focus on making the design review process more user-friendly and less confrontational.  Out of that came recommendations to include more staff involvement in working with applicants, staff reports that emphasized compliance with adopted policies and making findings for decisions, and a new document, “Residential Design Guidelines” that explains the processes and policies used in design review.


Through all of this, even though each task force included representatives from every political perspective, it turned out that no one wanted to get rid of Design Review.  They appreciated its work in containing the scale of new houses and remodels, assuring compatibility of new construction with the surroundings, and giving residents a say in the future of their neighborhoods and town.


So how’s it going?  I happened to attend a marathon Design Review meeting March 24, and I was impressed with our board and how they are professionally and kindly handling the meetings, the applicants, and the public.


Board members Ken Sadler, Robin Zur Schmiede, Caren Liuzzi, Ilse Lenshow, and Michael Wilkes were all well prepared to address each case, and comments were rooted in the city standards and guidelines. Board members’ personal opinion did not dominate the discussion and thus an impression of arbitrariness was avoided.


Still they made it clear to applicants with overly ambitious or inappropriate proposals that they would have to change their plans to gain approval.  They were sincere and personable to each applicant and to members of the public.  No one was just a number and they spent the time they needed to deal with each proposal—even though that night they didn’t adjourn until 1:30 a.m.


When I complimented one board member, the response was, “Well, we had a task force.”


Isn’t it rewarding to know that working together, even the complex, difficult and controversial can get remarkably better?


We can look back, and even with all the controversy, all our Design Review Boards have done a tremendous amount to prevent the degradation of our neighborhoods by over-development.  Just look at other nearby coastal cities for comparison. Thank you Design Review heroes!


Ann Christoph, a former mayor, works as a landscape architect.

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