Inside Design Review: Education is the first step

February 24, 2011|By Leslie LeBon

The Laguna Beach Design Review process has been a mystery to many residents for decades. Most have heard stories about various projects that went awry during Design Review hearings: projects taking years to get approved, neighbors ganging up on unsuspecting applicants, or applicants being told their dream house failed to meet certain criteria. Unfortunately, far too many of these stories are true.

That said, what people don't hear enough about are the successful projects — those that are well-prepared and well-designed. I know about both sides because for many years I was a member of both the DRB and Design Review Task Force.

Now here is what I can tell you from my experiences: The one similarity that failed projects share is a lack of understanding of the Design Review process.


I can also provide this good news: Most projects that come before the DRB are eventually approved. In fact, the best success stories are those created by architects and designers who have a thorough understanding of the process because they have been through it so many times.

Despite such successes, even the most experienced Laguna architect can be challenged by the process, due to its "discretionary" nature. Sometimes board members require more of what they want than guidelines dictate.

Faced with the challenges of the DR process, Laguna Beach residents are often left with two choices: avoid Design Review altogether — and perhaps give up their "dream home" — or try to better understand the process.

The purpose of my regular column is to help you through the Design Review process, either as an applicant or as a concerned neighbor. I want to help you better understand why some projects are approved, why others aren't, and why almost all projects that come before the DRB undergo significant changes.

Here, then, is my first piece of advice to anyone who will soon go through the process: Start by reading the recently adopted "Design Guidelines — A Guide to Residential Development."

This guidebook should help you through all three stages of a project—from initial planning to your first DR hearing to final approval or denial. Its overarching purpose is to bridge what has been a sometimes unfathomable gap between the development standards stated in the municipal code and the discretionary actions taken by the Design Review Board.

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