The only consensus Laguna Beach planning commissioners reached Wednesday was that they were not prepared to approve a proposed live-work project for artists in Laguna Canyon.

They first want to see the plans modified.

Commissioners, accepting city staff's recommendation, voted 5 to 0 to ask artist Louis Longi and project architect Horst Noppenberger to return Jan. 8 with a proposal that incorporates suggested changes.

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Longi and Noppenberger have already somewhat revised the project, which still calls for 30 units dedicated for artists to be built at 20412 and 20432 Laguna Canyon Road, after receiving suggestions from the public and commissioners at a Sept. 25 hearing.

But their proposed alterations don't go far enough, according to staff members and some commissioners.

Nearby canyon residents reiterated concerns that the proposed project would clash with elements of the Laguna Canyon Annexation Area Specific Plan, adopted by the City Council in 1991.

"The size, mass and design of this project is inconsistent with all surrounding structures and fails to maintain the rural, small-scale development described in and required by the specific plan," John Hamil, vice president of the Laguna Canyon Property Owners Assn., wrote in a letter to Commission Chairman Robert Zur Schmiede. "Although the applicant has made a legitimate effort, this building does not, in our opinion, have rural character."

Longi disagrees, saying he met with nearby residents and read through the area's specific plan.

The proposal still calls for two two-story buildings that span 36,750 square feet, according to a city staff report. Individual units would range from 500 square feet to 1,600 square feet, Longi wrote in an email.

"It is such an interpretive type of legislation," said Longi, a sculptor who has lived in Laguna Beach for 16 years. "We are not in contradiction with what's in there."

Commissioner Anne Johnson was not in favor of some of Longi and Noppenberger's changes, including the addition of 20 decks — each 77 square feet — on two sides of the building, but she took exception to the notion that the canyon is still rural.

"This project is not urban in the extreme," said Johnson, who worked on the city's current artist work-live ordinance, which seeks to provide affordable housing options to encourage artists to live in Laguna. "The whole project is separated from a residential area by [Laguna Creek]. I question whether Laguna Canyon is a country area ... and I'm one generation off the farm."

Noppenberger and Longi also made changes to the building's northernmost area. They proposed placing weathered wood planks in horizontal and vertical patterns to align with the area's rural character.

"I like the materials, but [the decks] make it look like a motel," Johnson said. "I would like to see art installations [on the site]."

The decks would add private living areas for each unit, but their appearance would make the building look too much like an apartment development, which is contrary to the city's artist work-live ordinance, the staff report stated.

The ordinance requires a building's architecture to resemble the use and nature of the surrounding neighborhood.

"I was a little surprised by that comment [about the decks making the building look like an apartment building]," Noppenberger said. "Our feeling was that these [units] are two-thirds work space and one-third living space. Artists want to be indoors and outdoors. The decks create more visual depth to building."

Zur Schmiede suggested that Noppenberger and Longi lower the buildings' height, saying the proposed structures compete with a surrounding ridgeline.

Artists need space to work, Longi said.

"[Lowering] the building height affects us from a creative point of view," Longi said. "Artists need high ceilings."

Artists who would qualify for the proposed housing would apply through Longi and have to satisfy at least three of four requirements in the current work-live ordinance, he said.

Two requirements include producing art as a primary occupation and providing a portfolio of finished work, Longi said.