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Volume 15, Issue 42  | May 26, 2023Subscribe

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Council to re-consider bluff overlay district, hear options on artist housing and workspace units


Laguna Beach City Council has a short, but interesting agenda at the meeting next week.

At the Tuesday (April 4) meeting, during regular business and on the consent calendar, council will consider: An ordinance amending portions of the city code related to oceanfront development and major remodels; options for privately owned artist housing and workspace units; replacement of self-contained breathing apparatus units and related equipment for the fire department; rejecting all bids for the fire station no. 1 restroom renovations and re-bid the project and a construction contract for Moulton Meadows dog play area.

First up during regular business, council will consider an ordinance amending portions of the city code related to oceanfront development and major remodels. If approved, the new ordinance will set regulations of oceanfront development with the establishment of a bluff overlay district and methodologies for calculating major remodels.

Councilmembers voted 4-1 on March 7 in support of the ordinance. Councilmember George Weiss was the dissenting vote.

The second reading of the approved ordinance was scheduled for March 21, but was removed from the agenda and continued to next week’s meeting for a new introduction and first reading in order to make several revisions to address public comments and concerns.

Most of the March 7 discussion centered on the new bluff overlay district, which will enact new oceanfront development standards that are responsive to the constraints of the city’s unique coastal landforms and site-specific conditions.

Council to re consider bluff overlay district coastal homes

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Council will re-consider a bluff overlay district aimed at clarifying oceanfront development regulations

The current 25-foot bluff top setback is an important factor in oceanfront development projects and how the bluff edge is plotted across a site guides the footprint, size and configuration of a proposed project. These factors are complicated by natural erosion processes and prior grading and development activity along the city’s bluff slopes. This has led to substantial issue determinations for some projects appealed to the California Coastal Commission.

Staff previously said the current regulations are a “blunt tool” and can be overly restrictive. They don’t consider the unique site conditions that vary from lot to lot, the city’s advantageous coastal geology, the many non-conforming structures that already exist, and historical grading activities and other types of development that have significantly altered the natural bluff conditions.

The city needs something more specific and clearer that would both be fair to property owners and comply with the California Coastal Act, staff emphasized at previous meetings. 

The historical response to coastal erosion has been to construct seawalls and other forms of coastal armoring to protect the threatened development, but the CCC and other agencies have found that hard armoring prevents the natural migration of the shoreline and, over time, generally results in the loss of the recreational beach area. As a result, the Coastal Commission tries to limit improvements adjacent to erosion-prone bluffs that could warrant the need for future armoring.

According to recent geology studies, the city’s seven miles of coastline is largely erosion-resistant.

Lots subject to stable erosion are eligible to apply for the bluff overlay district. The stable coastal erosion rate is proposed to be less than 0.2 feet per year. For lots subject to greater erosion rates, the 25-foot setback continues to apply.

If a lot is found to have a low rate of coastal erosion it may be eligible to be added to the bluff overlay district for the purpose of granting a site specific blufftop setback or encroachment. The decision would be subject to findings to establish that the reduced setback, or encroachment, conforms to the existing pattern of development, would not be threatened by geologic hazards, and would continue to protect the on-site coastal resources.

The greater erosion category would also include sites that are subject to adverse geology, including being prone to landslides. But all sites would be subject to a site-specific study that would be peer reviewed by the city’s geologist on a case-by-case basis.

An application for the bluff overlay district must be filed with a development proposal. The application should include a bluff overlay study (which should cover the bluff edge, erosion rate and a hazards evaluation), pattern of development in scenic resource analysis, oceanfront renderings and a drainage plan. 

Decisions will be determined based on special findings (crafted to address policy issues specific to oceanfront development), existing coastal development findings and compliance with applicable design review criteria. 

Regarding the changes to major remodel classification, the current lack of a certified methodology carries some risk that the CCC could find substantial issue on appeal of certain projects. A certified definition of “major remodel” would provide greater certainty in outcomes.

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For non-oceanfront properties, the definition for a major remodel would be met if a project proposed to demolish 50% or more of the exterior walls or if the proposed additions (either individually or when combined with prior additions) would result in a more than 50% addition to the existing structure (an exception would be for single family homes that may expand to a total gross floor area of 1,500 square feet).

For oceanfront property and areas subject to inundation, a more stringent set of criteria would apply. These categories are generally: 50% or more demolition to the exterior building walls; 50% or more demolition or reinforcement of the structures foundation, and a combined 50% of demolition of walls, foundation and the structural roof components. Also, any additions to an existing structure (either individually or when combined with prior additions) would result in greater than 50% expansion would be considered a major remodel.

Staff also proposed miscellaneous code updates including: Clarification that non-conforming uses are not considered abandoned merely due to a cessation of use; legal nonconforming structures may be altered for compliance with state mandated standards; revised bluff definitions and removing conflict bluff definition.

Since the March 21 meeting, several notable provisions were added or modified, including:

–A new requirement has been added to establish a minimum 25-foot setback from the top of any natural seacliffs.

–The Coastal Development Permit noticing requirements will be revised to require that notices indicate whether staff has determined the CDP to be appealable or non-appealable to the Coastal Commission, exempt from the CDP requirements, or categorically excluded from the CDP requirements.

–Among other requirements, the modified bluff top setback or bluff encroachment line of development states that development cannot be located seaward of the factor of safety line. This standard is necessary to ensure property is protected from landslides and erosion. The standard has been revised to clarify that the factor of safety must be met by the site geology, and not an engineered foundation.

–A new requirement would be placed on properties added to the bluff overlay district to require that they update their site drainage as needed to ensure dry and wet weather flows are directed to the street and away from bluffs and the beach.

The only other item during regular business is a request from councilmembers Mark Orgill and Alex Rounaghi to consider options for privately owned artist housing and workspace units and provide direction to the city manager on possible next steps.

“Laguna Beach is an art colony – it is who we are,” reads the agenda report, prepared by Orgill and Rounaghi. “However, rising house costs have pushed artists out of our community. For years, we have talked about and studied this problem, but no action has been taken.”

Orgill and Rounaghi were made aware of a reported potential for future loss of privately owned artist units that will displace a significant number of artists, exacerbating long-term trends.

At next week’s meeting, the councilmembers will present a summary of the issue and suggest potential strategies based on research from other jurisdictions. 

Council may consider options for the city to pursue in anticipation of future opportunities before the properties can be repurposed. They could also appoint a councilmember to participate with staff in future strategies to fund the acquisition of artist housing and workspace units, including public-private partnerships.

During a recent discussion about a potential urgency eviction ordinance by the Housing and Human Services Committee on February 22, a local example shared by a committee member involved a property with artist housing and workspace.

While the consent calendar (usually passed without discussion, unless an item is pulled by a councilmember or member of the public) also doesn’t have very many items up for consideration, there are a few items of interest.

Council will consider the purchase of 45 replacement self-contained breathing apparatus units and related equipment from AllStar Fire Equipment, for an amount not-to-exceed $578,000.

The fire department uses SCBA units on all fires and hazardous material incidents. The current units that were purchased and put into operation in 2008 are now at the end of their useful life. The proposed replacement equipment will comply with the National Fire Protection Association standards and have interoperability with mutual aid partners currently using the new Scott X3 Pro model.

City staff obtained quotes from the two vendors in Orange County that are licensed to sell and service Scott products and are recommending AllStar Fire Equipment based on price and their ability to provide onsite servicing. Staff compared the quote and pricing against recent purchases by neighboring cities and determined that it is competitive and in line with industry standards.

Also on the consent calendar, staff is recommending the council reject all bids for the fire station no. 1 restroom renovations and direct staff to re-bid the project.

The current budget includes approximately $300,000 for the restroom renovation project, which will also include renovation of the first-floor lobby and stairway.

The city received 13 construction bids for the project, however, 11 of the bids had errors or were missing required information and have been deemed non-responsive, according to the staff report. As a result, staff is recommending that the council reject all of them and direct staff to re-bid the project.

Last on the consent calendar, council will consider awarding a construction contract for Moulton Meadows dog play area.

Staff is recommending a contract with Jon Gilmer Construction, in the amount of $213,036. If approved, the action will also approve project-related expenses and construction change orders for unforeseen circumstances for an amount not-to-exceed $21,000. The current budget includes approximately $300,000 for the project.

The permanent dog play area will replace the temporary facility that was installed in 2019 and will include new fence, benches, renovated turf and landscape screening.

The city received 10 bids and John Gilmer construction was the lowest bidder, and staff determined that the company is qualified, properly licensed to perform the work, and is responsive and responsible. Other bids received ranged from about $215,000 to $391,000.

The Planning Commission approved the design review and coastal development permit to construct the dog play area at the Jan. 5, 2022, meeting.

Last on the agenda is an appeal of the Design Review Board’s approval, a Coastal Development Permit, a revocable encroachment permit and a California Environmental Quality Act categorical exemption for a residential project at 966 Coast View Drive.

The council agenda is available online here. Closed session starts at 4 p.m., the regular meeting begins at 5 p.m. 

Members of the public may speak in person in council chambers. 

To participate via Zoom, you may click here from your computer or smart phone. You may also call 669.900.9128 and wait for instructions. The Webinar ID is 91641723096#. If you have issues getting into the Zoom meeting or raising your virtual hand to comment, you may text the city clerk at 310.722.5051.

The meeting can be watched live on Cox channel 852 or on the city’s website at

Comments may be submitted on any agenda item or on any item not on the agenda in writing via mail to the City Clerk at: 505 Forest Ave., Laguna Beach, CA, 92651, by email to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., or by using this interactive form. Email your comments to the City Clerk no later than 3 p.m. on April 3 (the day before the City Council meeting) in order for your comments to be submitted to the members of the City Council the day prior the meeting, which provides them sufficient time to review the comments. 

You may continue to provide written comments up to 12 p.m. on April 4 (the day of the meeting). While these comments will be provided to the City Council at 2 p.m. on April 4, councilmembers may not have sufficient time to review them prior to the meeting. 


Sara Hall covers City Hall and is a regular contributor to Stu News Laguna.

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