Laguna Beach earns nod from state panel on design review reforms

The pepper tree at Laguna Beach City Hall. Photo by Jody Tiongco

Laguna Beach claimed a consequential victory Thursday after the California Coastal Commission tentatively signed off on a revised design review process intended to streamline minor home remodels and wildfire defense breaks on private property.

Among the projects removed from the Design Review Board’s purview are landscape modifications previously approved by the panel if there is no height increase, relocated windows if adjacent neighbors agree, and the creation of defensible space. City staffers can also green light adding additional floor area within certain limits, roof alterations, and some architectural modifications.

“These measures will reduce time, cost and frustration by our residents and will speed up approval times as City resources are freed up to work on the larger projects,” Mayor Sue Kempf said in a statement Thursday.

Most of the streamlined fixes related to building, remodeling, or modifying homes came as a result of a process started back in 2019. Kempf spearheaded the policy reform after promising voters she would simplify the City’s design review rules as a 2018 council candidate.

The state panel also took action to exempt Laguna Beach wireless communications antennas from obtaining coastal development permits, provided they’re fixed to an existing structure and don’t impact public access, coastal resources, or sensitive habitat.

The design review changes didn’t make it through the state panel without lengthy suggestions from coastal staff.

As an example, coastal staff wanted to maintain some oversight of wildfire fuel modification zones that could damage valuable coastal habitat that is typically home to endangered wildlife and plants.

“Language added notes that in some cases it may require a Coastal Development Permit, such as when it would impact environmentally sensitive habitat. This does not create any new requirements and is consistent with our current process,” Community Development Director Marc Wiener said in a statement.

In light of this, modifications suggested by the coastal staff will return to the City Council for approval on Sept. 20. Once adopted by the City Council, the document will be sent back to the coastal staff for final certification. This should happen in the next several months, city officials said.

The Emergency and Disaster Preparedness Committee championed the design review changes that will empower homeowners to more easily box in eaves, tighten ventilation screens, and trim vegetation away from structures. Coastal Commissioners’ approval Thursday is a big win, however tentative, for Laguna Beach public safety especially as tinder-dry drought conditions persist, emergency preparedness committee chairman Matt Lawson said.

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