Opponents have called a proposed 30-unit artist live-work project in Laguna Canyon many things in recent months: an encroachment on a neighborhood, a development too big for the site and a money-making operation.
After Wednesday night's Planning Commission vote on the matter, an additional term can be added: approved.
Commissioners, reflecting the dynamic of a community divided on the project, voted 3 to 2 for sculptor Louis Longi's project at 20412 and 20432 Laguna Canyon Road.
Commissioners Anne Johnson, Linda Dietrich and Ken Sadler cast yes votes. Chairman Robert Zur Schmiede and Norm Grossman dissented.
Wednesday's hearing was the third for the project in the last four months and the first since November, when commissioners held off voting.
Nearby residents turned out in droves Wednesday to speak on the project, which includes buildings of 11,000 and 7,000 square feet, that will sit near Canyon Animal Hospital, Laguna Koi Ponds and the Sun Valley residential neighborhood.
Johnson summed up the breakdown of project opponents and proponents who spoke during the meeting's public comment portion: two-thirds to one-third, respectively.
The project can be appealed to the City Council by the applicant or property owners within 300 feet of the project property within 14 calendar days from Wednesday, according to the city's municipal code.
The project jibes with the elements in the canyon, Dietrich said.
"I continue to support the project," she said. "Aesthetic is in the eye of the beholder. The architecture echoes the feel of the mountains and the canyon using materials and angles of the shed and roof lines."
Sadler, a professional engineer who drives along Laguna Canyon regularly, envisions what could be in the place where stakes currently outline the project's dimensions.
"I understand the immediate neighbors' concerns [including traffic and what happens if Laguna Canyon Creek overflowed]... but have come to the conclusion this is going to be a positive project for the future of Laguna Beach," Sadler said.
"There are some competing policies and goals [with the Laguna Canyon Annexation Area Specific Plan], he said. "Yes it says rural atmosphere and rustic in nature and the case could be made [the project's] design and materials are rustic. Whether it's considered rural is debatable. [It's] hard to say it is [small scale]. It is not. Does that one part of this specific plan override all the other goals and policies?
"This proposal is a better blend in light industrial uses than intense industrial use."
The project sits on a 36,750-square-foot lot and is within a light industrial zone. According to a city staff report, it complies with the artists' work-live section of the canyon's specific plan, which is a combination of commercial/light industrial and residential uses.
Longi and architect Horst Noppenberger intend to preserve mature weeping willows and plant more of those trees, along with California sycamores, to enhance the natural character of the canyon and screen the buildings from the adjacent residential zone and Laguna Canyon Road, the staff report said.
Longi and Noppenberger revised the project from the last meeting, removing three units from the top and relocating them to the rear of the building while eliminating decks with the exception of a couple outdoor communal work spaces, Noppenberger said in a phone message.
One parent of a Laguna College of Art + Design graduate spoke in favor of the project to keep artists living in town.
"This is an artists' village; this is where artists live," said Frank Layton.
"A lot of young people in the community cannot afford to live here," Layton said. "We're going to invest in the community and at the same time provide a beautiful place for people to thrive and grow. This will bring life to the canyon, not take away from it."
Grossman acknowledged the need for artist live-work space in Laguna Beach, but didn't feel the project's look or location as proposed were appropriate.
"What I see is a beautiful apartment building no matter how you disguise it," Grossman said. "It doesn't look like anything but a bunch of apartments along Laguna Canyon Road. If a commercial building of this size came in, we would reject it. This is a use [artist live-work] the city desperately wants. I'm willing to give a lot but not that much."
Resident Dan Thomas favored the project when it called for eight units, but claims the facility is too big for the site.
"Most hotels in Laguna aren't that big," Thomas said.
Zur Schmiede wasn't hung up on land use but opposed the project as designed.
"I don't think this is what the specific plan had in mind," he said. "I compare this situation with Diamond Crestview [neighborhood]. The Diamond Crestview Specific Plan called for rustic and small scale. Now we're going to do something different. If we don't want to do what's in the specific plan, we should amend the specific plan."