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Laguna Beach

 Volume 14, Issue 76  |  September 23, 2022


Laguna Logo 2022

Marc Wiener: Director of Community Development finds calling in urban planning

By DIANNE RUSSELL

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

“Choose a job you love, and you’ll never have to work a day in your life,” is a quote often attributed to the ancient Chinese sage Confucius – although in that era, job choice flexibility must have been sharply limited. 

No matter where the adage originated, it’s a philosophy that Community Development Director Marc Wiener wholeheartedly embraces. “Even though some weeks are challenging, I love my job and feel that I have found my calling,” he said. “I enjoy public service and the special challenges that come with the position of being director. I like solving problems.” 

Wiener came to his position at the City of Laguna Beach with a history of public service in another coastal community. After serving 12 years with the city of Carmel-by-the-Sea, the last four as director, he was appointed Laguna Beach Community Development Director in December 2019. 

As Wiener took over the position just before the pandemic and subsequent shutdowns, he immediately had to deal with some extraordinary obstacles. 

“Having the pandemic occur within my first few months added to the challenge of learning the new job. With the closure of City Hall, we had to find new ways of working with the public and issuing permits. Responding to the issues was a team effort and I grew closer with my employees because of it.”

When fully staffed, his department will have 46 employees.

Marc Wiener closeup

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Marc Wiener

As a problem solver, Wiener’s focus is on clear communication and finding the most direct path to a solution, seeking common solutions in a collaborative manner. “My goals are to ensure that the staff is providing exceptional customer service to the community, improve the Community Development Department practices and procedures, streamline the entitlement process in a sensible manner and address longstanding policy issues,” he said.

In the three years since he took over the department, he is well on the way to achieving many of his goals.

History

Little in Wiener’s early years suggested he would go into urban planning as a career. He was born in San Jose and raised in Northern California. “Most of my childhood was spent living on a horse ranch in a town called San Juan Bautista,” he said. “My mother raised and bred prized Lipizzan horses, so I spent a lot of time doing projects on the ranch and helping with the caretaking of up to 30-40 horses. I helped build many structures on the ranch and will never forget how hard it was digging hundreds of post holes.” He has one sister.

Wiener is an AICP (American Institute of Certified Planners) certified planner. He holds a Master of Urban and Regional Planning from San Jose State University and a Bachelor of Science in Biology and Environmental Studies from UC Santa Cruz. 

In response to the question about what other career he might have pursued, Wiener replied, “Likely the medical field. My dad always told me I should be a doctor or a pilot. My bachelor’s degree is in science with a focus on molecular biology. After several years of working in laboratories, including a stint in forensic science, I decided to pursue a new career path and was either going to be a physician’s assistant or city planner. I was accepted into master’s programs for both career paths, but ultimately chose city planning. It was one of the best decisions I have ever made. My original intent was to be an environmental planner, but the more I learned about planning, I veered away from it and decided to be a public sector planner.”

Family matters

As one would anticipate, there are aspects of his life that have nothing to do with zoning, permits or codes. As Wiener admitted, readers might be surprised to learn, “I’m kind of a kid at heart. I still play pick-up basketball, play video games. I enjoy superheroes and science fiction. It’s funny because my two teenage boys have outgrown the superhero movies, but their dad is still a fan.” He also enjoys science – astrophysics, chemistry and biology. When he was a boy, he would have lengthy discussions with his mother about science and theories of how the universe works. 

Marc Wiener public art

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(L-R) Mason, Emily, Marc, Sherry and Ryland in front of the sculpture “Grace” at the Main Beach Lifeguard Station

Married 22 years, Wiener met his wife Sherry through a mutual friend. They went to the same high school, but he did not meet her until several years after they graduated. “Sherry is my biggest fan and my best friend. She’s supportive and always available to help me with good advice,” he said.

They have three children – two sons, 16-year-old Mason and 13-year-old Ryland, who both play football, and a daughter, 7-year-old Emily, who is into gymnastics. 

Of all his personal accomplishments, Wiener said, “I am most proud of being a husband and father of three. My family loves living in South OC. It’s a beautiful place and there are so many things to do. I like how everything is so close – Disneyland, San Diego, or the snow – and within an hour or two of home. That was part of why we moved here. I was ready for a change of scenery.”

A new role 

The responsibilities of the Director of Community Development encompass many areas of urban planning – property zoning, use of property and law and code enforcement.

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Although Carmel-by-the-Sea has only four to five thousand residents, Wiener noted its similarities to Laguna Beach. “From a community development perspective, both cities are very similar,” he said. “They are both coastal cities that are visitor destinations (six million for Laguna versus two million annually for Carmel). The reason they are destinations is that they are both beautiful and storied communities. Because they are special places, the focus is the same – to maintain the character and uniqueness. However, Laguna Beach has a bigger department and a more complex process and there are more land use issues. A good portion of my efforts have gone into improving the department and the process, but there is still much more that needs to be done.

Hands-on approach

 “I take a hands-on approach to running the department,” Wiener said. “I am very involved in long-range planning efforts, department process improvements and making decisions on day-to-day issues. My number one priority is my staff.” 

Since Wiener is responsible for the Planning, Zoning, Building and Code Enforcement divisions – which are all much-discussed topics in Laguna – he deals with many issues in guiding development in the town. However, it’s no surprise that the biggest one involves “change.” 

Marc Wiener beach posing

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Enjoying a beautiful day 

“The biggest challenges center around change, and how to move things forward while still maintaining the essence of our city,” he said. “I am aware that new development, whether it be a commercial development or a new home, can lead to anxiety. I’m sensitive to that, and I understand the desire to keep Laguna Beach what it is, but I think change can be positive if we remain mindful of preserving Laguna’s uniqueness.” 

Wiener considers his most significant accomplishment as director the updates to several land-use policies and improvements to the department.

“Some of the land-use updates include the Downtown Specific Plan, historic preservation ordinance, housing and safety elements and the short-term lodging program,” he said. “I’m proud of my work in those areas. I’m also proud of the improvements we’ve made within the department. There is still much more left to do but I am happy with the progress that has been made and excited about the future.”

Streamlining processes 

In continuing to focus on customers and facilitate processes, new procedures are being put in place. 

To get an idea of what Wiener’s department deals with day in and day out, this summer alone, there were 448 building permits issued, 110 planning applications received and 22 projects approved by the Design Review Board. In just three months, 4,007 residents were helped at the counter.

“We are working on a streamlining system that makes checking in easier for customers. This system allows applicants and residents to get in the que remotely and receive updates of when it is their turn to be helped. It’s current practice for many businesses,” Wiener explained. “Our new check-in system will be launched in a few weeks. We are also developing a new permitting system that will allow individuals to submit applications and plans online and will provide them with real-time updates.” The new permit system is anticipated to be launched early next year.

Marc Wiener walking

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The Wiener family taking a stroll at Main Beach

The other positive improvement is the Streamlining Ordinance, which went to the City Council in May 2021, finally got through the Coastal Commission and goes back to the Council on September 20. It will cut out a lot of time by giving staff the ability to clear certain items for folks at the counter. “For example, minor modifications like a skylight could be cleared at the counter, rather than referring them to a public hearing,” Wiener said. “It provides a common-sense approach to processing minor projects. It also allows staff to approve a moderate range of projects, which would previously have involved a lengthy process and public hearing with the Design Review Board. Streamlining will go into effect this November. I think residents will appreciate it. It’s a first step, but still more is needed to make the development regulations simpler and more straightforward. The regulations are convoluted and not consolidated, so it’s challenging to review projects and give people answers at the counter. It’s like piecing together a puzzle.”

Updating zoning codes

“The next step is to completely update the entire zoning code to make it simpler and easier to implement,” said Wiener. “As we do that, it’s important to keep the same objectives as we have now regarding the look and feel of the town, but do it in a more practical way. I know it can be accomplished, we did it in Carmel. That’s coming next, but right now I’m excited about the streamlining.”

Previously the updates had been done in a piece meal way over time, and now Wiener feels that it’s important to address the entire document, taking it in phases. 

Another exciting project is going to the Planning Commission this week. 

“We’ve developed regulations pertaining to the bluff top zone of the city,” Wiener said. “Development near the bluffs has been a recurring issue with the Coastal Commission. We’ve worked very closely with their staff on developing the regulation and hope that they will ultimately support it. We think it establishes reasonable development standards for people who live along the shoreline, while balancing property rights with the policies of the Coastal Act. Currently, there is a lot of ambiguity about what property owners can do with their property, which has resulted in several appeals to the Coastal Commission. We want to make the rules are clearer and more fair. Ninety percent of the shoreline is geologically stable but is being treated as if it’s subject to rapid erosion, which limits the ability to improve one’s property. Even the Coastal Commission has acknowledged that we have a stable shoreline. The hope is that if the Geotech report shows a slow rate of erosion, it may allow options for some improvements in those areas.”

Marc Wiener looking at Marc

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Marc has his family’s full attention

Commitment to community

“Every week there are many interesting challenges that make the job fun,” Wiener said. “The issues are not always straight forward, which requires me to think outside the box to come up with a solution. I also act as arbitrator in neighbor disputes. In general, I try to listen to both sides with empathy and attempt to defuse the situation. 

“I am proud of my professional growth in reaching the level of director,” Wiener said. “When I first got into this field, I did not intend to be a manager or director. However, I had good mentors that pointed me in the right direction. I am proud of the contributions I have made in Laguna Beach and hope to make many more.” 

It’s inevitable that any position comes with its upsides and a few downsides.

“My favorite part of the job is working with our staff and helping in their development,” Wiener said. On the flip-side, his least favorite part is having to say, “no” to a resident.

 “I enjoy having an active role in this community and the relationships that I have made,” Wiener said. “I live in a neighboring town, but my heart and mind are devoted to Laguna Beach and I consider this my community.”

Shaena Stabler, President & CEO - Shaena@StuNewsLaguna.com

Lana Johnson, Editor - Lana@StuNewsLaguna.com

Tom Johnson, Publisher - Tom@StuNewsLaguna.com

Dianne Russell is our Associate Editor.

Michael Sterling is our Webmaster & Designer.

Mary Hurlbut and Scott Brashier are our photographers.

Alexis Amaradio, Dennis McTighe, Diane Armitage, Marrie Stone, Sara Hall, Suzie Harrison and Theresa Keegan are our writers and/or columnists.

In Memoriam - Stu Saffer and Barbara Diamond.

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