Opinion: Village Matters – Local News from Laguna Beach
Time to collaborate?
By Ann Christoph
Patience and perseverance, these two qualities are necessary in large part to cope with obtaining permits at the town hall. Talk to people who have tried to get permits, both in the past and recently, and you’ll hear stories of frustration, delays, and communication issues.
Over the past three years, at the request of the public and the Council, much effort has been put into “streamlining”. The objective of the streamlining was to make changes to the Community Development Department’s processes to make obtaining permits easier and faster. So far, streamlining changes have resulted in more projects being sent for administrative design review, and planning staff and the fire department are allowed to approve some plans without review. design (or public). These changes reduce the scope of the Design Review Board’s work and give staff more authority, but are applicants saying their licensing experience is better? Streamlining measures do not address the central problem.
Something is seriously wrong with the community development department and its procedures between the time of submitting plans for zoning and reviewing the design, and after reviewing the zoning and design and obtaining the permits. . Face-to-face meetings with staff reveal that people genuinely try to do a good job, but the total bottom line is lacking.
There are complaints of overly long reviews, partial reviews causing repeat submissions, lost plans, lost emails, and gaps in communication between staff. Confusion caused by city hall closures during COVID-19 made communication and submissions even more difficult.
These difficulties discourage project developers and result in some contractors and owners simply not getting permits. They also disillusion people who would like to support many of the City’s initiatives and participate in positive community improvements. Bad counter experiences could lead citizens to be negative about what the City is trying to do. Not useful for community spirit and good government.
Staff turnover is a constant problem and one of the obvious causes of some of these problems. Key staff members have retired or moved on to preferred positions in other agencies. Laguna Beach’s rules and policies are complicated and it takes time to understand them so that staff can properly advise applicants. This makes retaining experienced staff essential to running an effective authorization process, but for years staff retention has been an issue. Currently, the ministry is short of two planners. This puts pressure on the remaining staff, who become overloaded. It could also lead to their departure.
These statements from dedicated and conscientious employees about to leave remain etched in my mind: “My health is more important than staying in this job”. “This city is beautiful, but the management …”
Now we have a new direction, we have questionnaires after a meeting at the town hall. Will there be any improvements? What to do ?
In the past, the city council appointed citizen working groups to deal with specific issues. These served as fruitful forums to explore issues in detail — Laguna Canyon Flood Control, Design Review, Laguna Canyon Road. Local people familiar with the subject were appointed and members of the public were able to participate in the meetings. However, these working groups are not part of our Council’s approach. For example, the fire preparedness program meetings were organized by the mayor and the deputy mayor with the fire chief, and there was no public participation.
It is better to collaborate than to complain. There are many “experts” in the City Hall permitting process (architects, contractors, owners). So far, staff have not fixed this problem after years of testing. Is it time to consult with those most familiar with this process through an officially appointed licensing process working group?
Ann is a landscape architect and former mayor of Laguna Beach. She is also a long-time member of the Board of Directors of Village Laguna, Inc.