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In Laguna Beach, Striving for Dream Home Can Be Nightmare

Design Review Board's 'arbitrary' decisions almost always make somebody angry.

June 28, 2004|Stanley Allison | Times Staff Writer

It happens every week in Laguna Beach: An architect or homeowner goes before the city's Design Review Board, seeking approval for a new home or remodeling project, only to be told to go back to the drawing board.

Sometimes the board members look at a proposal and ask incredulously, "Are you kidding?"

Critics of the powerful seven-member board say its decisions are often frustrating and demoralizing and almost always send someone -- homeowners, protesting neighbors, or both -- away angry. Such decisions can be not only arbitrary and inconsistent, but expensive, they say.

The legions of disgruntled neighbors, architects and homeowners have grown such that Mayor Cheryl Kinsman says her open-door hours with the public are dominated by complaints about the Design Review Board.

So Kinsman will establish a mayoral task force to explore how to make the process less contentious.

"I don't like to see anger so extreme that people, even though they might get a house approved, don't want to live there," because of animosity toward their protesting neighbors, Kinsman said.

Kinsman said she will name the members of the task force at a council meeting in August. The panel will have one member from the Planning Commission, one from the Design Review Board and three from the public. Kinsman wants one of the public members to be a local architect.

Their mission will be to come back to the council in six months with a list of recommendations to make the experience of going before the Design Review Board less stressful. The council will then decide on the value of the recommendations.

Unlike many critics, Kinsman doesn't believe that the board is what needs to be fixed.

"I don't think the Design Review Board is the problem," she said. "It's the process and regulations we have given them to work with. I want to know if there is something we can change to reduce the animosity in the neighborhood."

There's debate whether the solution lies in better-defined design guidelines or more sympathetic or consistent design reviewers.

The most common kind of dispute before the review board is whether a design blocks views.

Indeed, in a city where "everyone wants a peek of the ocean," according to board member Suzanne Morrison, any new home or remodel that infringes on views is met with fierce opposition.

Architect Ryan Ghere bought a small cottage on Oak Street nearly two years ago and had planned a more spacious home for his family that he believed was in character with the neighborhood.

"He wanted a very simple remodel," said his father, Dale, who encouraged him to buy the 925-square-foot home.

The younger Ghere was going to add nearly 900 square feet, with a second-story back bedroom and about 500 square feet added to the back of the house downstairs.

"They said no," the son said of his first contact with the Design Review Board in May 2003. "There were a lot of the neighbors saying that they didn't like it was a two-story. Some people said, 'You're taking some of my view.' My uncle was building at that time next door to me and he was approved for a two-story. They said two two-stories going on at the same time, that's too much of an impact.

But "what you're hearing is an opinion, not an ordinance," he complained.

That is precisely what the Design Review Board is supposed to deliver, Morrison said.

"We are arbitrary, aren't we?" Morrison said. "That's the nature of the Design Review Board. If we weren't frustrating sometimes and we weren't strict about the guidelines that have been established, then Laguna Beach would not be Laguna Beach."

The Design Review Board has been a Laguna Beach planning fixture for more than 50 years but has focused mostly on single-family homes for the last 20. It is the subjective arm of the city's building codes and ordinances.

After an applicant is approved by the zoning department and meets various requirements such as setback and building height, the Design Review Board is assigned to ensure that the new or remodeled home is compatible with the neighborhood, is an interesting and attractive design and, most important, addresses the thorny issue of view equity.

Much of Laguna Beach's charm, locals say, comes from the quaint cottages of 1,000 square feet or smaller, many built as summertime retreats, surrounded by an abundance of morning glory, ficus and palm trees, toyon bushes and bougainvilleas.

Because smaller homes that sold for $100,000 about 15 years ago now sell for 10 times that, the new owners typically want to enlarge them to match their investment.

"They alter a neighborhood by increasing the number of two-story homes," said Councilman Wayne Baglin. "Not only are they going for additional square footage, but they're going for a view which historically did not exist with that home."

First, they have to get past the Design Review Board. At a recent meeting, an applicant was told that his plan to enlarge a small cottage was unacceptable.

"This is a very sweet historic cottage," board member Ben Simon said. "I feel like this project does a disservice to the house that is there now."

Member Eve Plumb said: "I think you will be happier in your neighborhood if you stay with the bungalow you have," rather than obliterate its style.

And Morrison told the applicant, after she saw the on-site poles and stakes installed to mimic the height and proportions of the new structure, "What it said to me loud and clear is it's going to change the character of the neighborhood."

When the designer said the house would have a "quasi-Mediterranean" look, Morrison said, "I'm so tired of Mediterranean style. This is Laguna Beach. North Laguna Beach doesn't need another quasi-Mediterranean house."

Morrison says she finds it ironic that "people come to Laguna Beach because of its unique character, and then they want to change it."

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