Bill that could potentially allow relinquishment of Coast Highway moves forward, procedural step in lengthy process

By SARA HALL

A California Assembly bill that would allow a state agency to consider relinquishment of the Laguna Beach portion of Coast Highway over to the city has passed through one step of the process.

At the April 1 meeting, the Assembly Transportation Committee unanimously approved moving AB 2817 forward. The item was on the consent calendar and there was no discussion. The action referred the bill to the Appropriations Committee with a recommendation that it be placed on their consent calendar.

The bill would set the stage to potentially allow for relinquishment, if the city eventually decides to pursue control of the highway. Although there are a number of steps at the state level for the bill to pass through and a lengthy public process at the local level before it could actually happen.

AB 2817 was introduced by Assemblymember Diane Dixon (R-Newport Beach) on February 15 and, if ultimately approved, would give legislative authorization to the California Transportation Commission to consider relinquishment of a 6.8-mile segment of State Route 1 to the City of Laguna Beach.

“Laguna Beach would like to improve State Route 1. Their goal to accommodate motorists, bicyclists and pedestrians, as well as to promote tourism and economic development and reflect the unique character of Laguna Beach is one I encourage,” Dixon explained in an email to Stu News Laguna. “Currently, Caltrans has control over the state’s highways and is limited in the types of improvements it is able to make to those highways. This bill is necessary to formally begin the process of relinquishment of SR 1 within the boundaries of the City of Laguna Beach from Caltrans to the city.”

Although a hearing date is not yet set for the Appropriations Committee, the last hearing for Assembly bills tagged fiscal is May 17. Dixon’s office anticipates the bill to be heard before the deadline.

After Appropriations, it will head to the Assembly floor for a vote of all 80 members, Dixon’s Chief of Staff Hannah Ackley Skaggs pointed out in an email to Stu News Laguna. They must vote to pass it out of the Assembly by May 24. Next, it will head to the Senate and be referred to both the policy and fiscal committees. If it is not amended in the Senate, then it will be sent to the governor’s desk and await a signature. He has until September 30 to sign, veto or choose not to sign legislation. If he signs or chooses not to sign bills, they become law and take effect Jan. 1, 2025 (unless they contain an urgency clause, which AB 2817) does not.

If all of that happens and the bill becomes law, the CTC is notified and the commission and city staff can start having conversations. At this point, the CTC or Laguna Beach could choose not to move forward with relinquishment. Even if both agencies decide to move forward, they may not be able to come to an agreement on the terms and conditions.

According to a fact sheet provided by Dixon, that’s also posted on the city’s website on the City Council page under sponsored state legislation for 2024, the city has discussed the possibility of acquiring Coast Highway with Caltrans, but the dialogue has “gone as far as legally possible without the legislative authorization for CTC to consider relinquishment.”

In the analysis for AB 2817, the city, as a sponsor of the bill, wrote that Laguna Beach is “exploring opportunities to further improve SR 1 for its residents and visitors” and that the bill “will help the city reach its local transportation and safety goals.”

Click on photo for a larger image

Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Coast Highway is currently controlled by the state

On the city side, Mayor Sue Kempf noted in a phone interview with Stu News Laguna that a lot of analysis would need to be done before it gets to that point. Safety, liability, aesthetics, maintenance and other aspects of any potential project would need to be studied, she said, and it’s not high on the list of things to pursue at this point.

“There is nothing in the works,” Kempf said. “It is not on our priority list of projects at the council level.”

This is a technical step in the process, she added.

At the January 19 council planning session (at the 5:17:30 mark in the video), Councilmember Bob Whalen asked for a status update on item 62, the last item on their list of policy initiatives and projects, the Coast Highway potential relinquishment and the council’s prior request for a Sacramento representative to introduce a bill.

“Which, again, just tees us up for potential relinquishment, it doesn’t obligate us to do anything, but it checks a box,” Whalen said.

The request has been made and they’re on “standby,” confirmed then-Assistant to the City Manager (now Assistant City Manager) Jeremy Frimond, but they want council direction to initiate that process. The arrangements have been made if that’s the council’s desire.

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Then-Interim City Manager Sean Joyce asked if Frimond wanted council to return separately with an item for direction or if a “nod and a wink” during the planning session would be adequate as direction for staff to continue moving forward with the request. All councilmembers either verbally agreed, with a “nod and wink,” joked Councilmember George Weiss, or did not object to moving forward.

Frimond also reiterated that starting the bill through the process does not obligate the city to anything.

“Initiating that process doesn’t commit the city to relinquishment, it’s just a procedural streamlining process. We wouldn’t have to wait a year or two,” if the city ultimately decides to pursue it, Frimond said.

The bill was also mentioned in the “Week That Was” newsletters (TW2) from the city manager. In the January 22-25 TW2, Joyce wrote that Dixon started the process for the legislation.

“This marks the initial step in which the state legislature must authorize Caltrans to proceed with the process,” Joyce wrote. “It’s important to clarify that this legislation does not obligate the city to assume control of Coast Highway. Instead, it serves as an early phase in the process, intended to proactively reduce potential delays in the later stages, should the City Council decide to assume control.”

In Joyce’s February 19-22 TW2, he mentioned the bill and noted that a summary and fact sheet were available on the city’s website.

More recently, at the March 26 meeting during councilmember comments, Whalen (at the 2:49:08 mark in the video) replied to a public comment about the bill.

“The bill…simply authorizes the state to negotiate with the city about whether the transfer is going to occur somewhere down the road. So, there would be multiple hearings and decisions and agreements that would have to be entered into before that happens. This is sort of a technical clearing,” Whalen said.

At their May 16, 2023, budget workshop, Council included $100,000 in the 2023‐24 budget to complete a cost/benefit analysis on potentially relinquishing Coast Highway to the city. Work on the study is anticipated to begin prior to June 30.

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Sara Hall covers City Hall and is a regular contributor to Stu News Laguna.


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