By David Raber
The Laguna Residents First Ballot initiative will be on the November General Election ballot. Its official title, as assigned by the City Attorney, will be “An Ordinance Creating an Overlay Zoning District and Requiring Voter Approval of Major Development Projects.” That is a fitting summary, but it means different things to different people. There is, actually, only one definition as to what the ballot initiative states. You can find out for yourself exactly what it says at lagunaresidentsfirst.com. We invite you to do so!
As the campaign season is barely underway, there has been some confusion introduced by those who hope to further intensify and redevelop Laguna beyond what many of the residents consider reasonable. Let’s take a look at some of the areas that are being discussed:
Looking Back vs. Looking Forward
Some people who choose to look backward rather than forward are concerned that the ballot initiative would have been too strict for Laguna of yesteryear. Of course. When Laguna was first being built out there was room for several large buildings to be built and some extra parking allotments to be given away. All of those large buildings and historic parking give-aways are safely grandfathered into the ballot initiative. The ballot initiative only applies to what lies ahead; either new construction or intensification of the existing use, such as turning what was retail into yet another nightclub. It only looks forward, so that what we do to this city in the future is measured by criteria that account for the natural geographic limits of this beautiful place where we all live.
We don’t have to welcome even more intensity and density. The future is ours to manage. Reasonable growth guidelines make our collective limits visible, which helps the city better manage the inevitable growth that will take place, as well as sustain the premium value that we have all bought into when we moved here.
Converting Retail to Residential
The ballot initiative supports this concept. Laguna Beach is no exception to the national trend away from brick-and-mortar retail. At the same time, demand for housing at all levels is increasing. This is particularly acute at the affordable housing level. The ballot initiative sets a threshold of 22,000 square feet of floor space before triggering a public review. That is easily enough for a 24-unit building with 800 square feet per apartment, or even 20 units averaging 1,000 square feet each. You can do the math and see that many other combinations for multi-unit residential will also work. This is a reasonable common-sense limit to manage the inevitable growth that will take place, as well as sustain the premium value that we have all bought into when we moved here.
More Than Nine Apartment Units?
The ballot initiative categorically exempts new projects that consist of nine units or less. That does not mean that new projects of 10 or more units are going to be put to a vote. It just means that after 10 units the project will have to stand on its own merits, including overall size limitations and on-site parking requirements. Using the examples above, most reasonable configurations of apartment buildings will fit well within the criteria.
More Parking Exemptions?
All of the current parking exemptions that have been granted remain in place. There have been hundreds of required parking spots that have been exempted by the City. All of those remain. The ballot initiative only addresses granting new parking exemptions. Even that is possible without public review. The ballot initiative leaves this up to the Planning Commission. They would need to find that the new parking exemption would be in the public interest, and does not negatively impact the neighborhoods. Think about it. How can one fight against the common-sense standard that giving away more parking should only be done if it meets a very fundamental sniff test? The alternative is even more intensification without incremental parking and completely without regard to what intensification without incremental parking is doing to the neighborhoods.
Why the Issue With Combining Lots?
The ballot initiative allows for combining lots, but prevents large blocks from being developed as a single project without public review. Why? Look at it this way. Time has been kind to Laguna Beach. As the city has evolved, many individual decisions have been made by a variety of property owners to make changes and repurpose buildings as the times change. That needs to continue, and is supported by the ballot initiative.
As this process has unfolded over time it has led to the interesting “organic mosaic” that gives us the charming town that we experience today. Some architects try to recreate this “organic mosaic” with a synthesized “old-time” facade, like Downtown Disney. Ours is the real thing! How do we keep that going? It is hard to legislate or dictate an “organic mosaic.” The best way to keep it alive is to create a diversified environment that will keep design and use decisions with individual property owners while at the same time not giving any single owner control of very large, contagious, chunks of our town. By keeping the number of property owners and the diversity of property uses roughly at the level that it is today we can decentralize important design decisions across a variety of tastes, needs, and architectural solutions. May the market bless the best choices in this competitive world that we live in.
David is a Laguna Beach resident and principal officer of Laguna Residents First PAC.