Commission OKs bike lane along Park Avenue, deviates from staff, directs green paint as additional safety measure

By SARA HALL

The Planning Commission this week unanimously approved adding bike lanes and reconfiguring vehicle lanes on Park Avenue. However, commissioners deviated from city staff’s recommendation and additionally directed that the entire bike path be painted green, despite public works contending that it wasn’t in the allotted budget and that staff may have to reconsider the project with that added condition and potentially appeal the decision to City Council.

Commissioners voted 4-0 on Wednesday (Feb. 7) in support of the project, which is located for the stretch of street between Wendt Terrace and Alta Laguna Boulevard. Chair Pro Tem Steve Kellenberg recused himself due to his residence being located within 500 feet of the project.

The public works department requested a coastal development permit to implement mobility improvements on Park Avenue, including implementation of a dedicated bike lane, reconfiguration of vehicle travel lanes and on-street parking modifications. As proposed, the project includes striping and signage for the creation of a bike lane six feet wide along the full corridor with adjacent parking lanes eight feet in width. Vehicle lane widths will vary along the street segment and there is ample and underutilized roadway width to accommodate the new bike lane while maintaining most of the existing on-street parking.

Most of the hour and a half discussion on Wednesday focused on painting the bike lanes green, which was suggested by both commissioners and members of the public. It was debated by public works staff primarily because of the potential cost and possible maintenance issues.

Green paint is commonly used as a measure to increase visibility of the designated path for cyclists, aimed at improving safety and decreasing the risk of collisions between bikes and vehicles. Proponents of using the color for the Park Avenue project noted that it would help distinguish the bike path and separate it from motorists on the street. This is particularly important for this location because young students ride their bikes to and from Thurston Middle School and drivers often speed down the hill and around a sharp S-curve.

The green paths really do improve the visual separation of the bike lanes from the motor lanes, said Commissioner Jorg Dubin. It’s important to do anything they can to make it safer for everybody, he added, and it’s pretty obvious that something needs to happen on this street.

“The number one thing that we are supposed to be looking out for is public safety and since the e-bike thing has exploded and lots of kids are using them, I just think anything we can do – outside of a physical barrier – to enhance the safety is something that we should impose on this project,” Dubin said.

Dubin and several other commissioners preferred a separated bike lane, but the idea was dismissed due to issues related to interference with parking, vehicles needing to pull over for an emergency, and rumble strips or raised markers causing problems for cyclists.

Safety is the top priority, all the commissioners agreed.

There has been a proliferation of e-bikes over the past few years, noted Commission Chair Ken Sadler, and the use of these type of bikes has exploded with local kids. There is plenty of room on the road for these proposed improvements, which would make a notable difference for the cyclists on this street, he added.

“We need to make it as absolutely safe as possible for the bike-riding students,” he said.

Click on photo for a larger image

Courtesy of City of Laguna Beach

A photo of a cyclist on Park Avenue with a rendering of additional bike lane signage

Responding to a commissioner question, Associate Civil Engineer Josh McDonald noted that green for the entire length of the bike lane is not included in the proposed plan and staff would need to look at the project again if that’s how the commission wanted to move forward.

“Staff would need further analysis for the green paint to extend the full length of the bike lane. We would not be able to move forward with the project if approved as such,” McDonald said. “That would not be something that we’d want to install with this project.”

However, they could move the project along if the paint was just at the intersection and each delineated bike lane pavement markings, he added.

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It was considered, but due to maintenance costs it was not a preferable option, McDonald said. According to the California Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, installing the green paint is an optional application and not a requirement for current standards, he added. As an example, McDonald pointed to a street in Long Beach. The green paint has faded over the years and caused maintenance problems, he said, and the city eventually repaved and only painted at the demarcation blocks. Cost is the largest hindrance, he concluded.

McDonald also noted that although the green paint portrays additional safety, it doesn’t actually increase safety, it just makes the user feel that way, he said.

Although commissioners disagreed and commented that the green paint does actually help and that both the initial installation cost and ongoing maintenance costs would be worth the improvement.

“The maintenance issue I don’t feel is that relevant compared to the safety of the community,” Dubin said.

Public safety is one of the key issues they base their decisions on, he noted. They are entrusted by City Council to make those kinds of decisions, he added. As a commission, they have agreed that, regardless of the cost of maintenance, it’s important to do everything they can to ensure the safety of cyclists on this stretch of road, which – in the opinion of the majority of commissioners – includes painting the bike path green.

The green paint shouldn’t be much of an ongoing issue, in terms of maintenance, Sadler said. There will be some additional cost with the initial application, but upkeep can likely be included when the road is regularly scheduled for resurfacing, he pointed out.

“I can’t imagine it being a budget killer with this project,” Sadler said.

Several commissioners agreed they weren’t willing to approve the project without including the green painting for the entire length of the bike lane.

“The green painted bike lanes are a bare minimum and I’m not willing to approve the project without them,” said Commissioner Susan McLintock Whitin. “These are children, this is our only middle school and we know that we have over 100 of these kids using bikes.”

The painted bike paths are common in other cities with a lot of cyclists, she pointed out.

If it has to be studied so the maintenance costs can be considered, Sadler though it shouldn’t take more than a month or so. He suggested the commission continue the item so staff can analyze the potential financial impact.

McDonald was unsure when staff could return with an updated cost study as they were previously requested to only present the project as is to the commission.

Public works staff was seeking a decision on the project (as is) at Wednesday’s meeting, if the commission could not make a decision, they would have to consider a denial, explained Planning Manager David Contreras, which would mean they could not make the findings as asked.

Denying it wouldn’t make any sense, Dubin said. A continuance also seems logical, he added. He questioned why they couldn’t continue the item so staff could analyze the budget issue.

“We’re not trying to kill the project. A bike lane is better than no bike lane, but it’s a matter of however many gallons of green paint,” he said.

If they continued the item, staff could return in a month or so and report if they could or couldn’t find the funds to include the green painting, Dubin said, at that time, the commission could decide whether or not to move forward with the project how it’s currently proposed.

To deny it would be foolish, agreed Commissioner Steve Goldman, but approving it conditionally would provide more time and flexibility for city staff to sort it out.

Whitin asked if they could approve it with an additional condition, as they’ve done frequently in the past with other projects.

Although the commission could do that, Patrick Donegan, an associate with Best, Best & Krieger LLP, the law firm that provides city attorney services to Laguna Beach, cautioned against the efficacy of that in the face of an applicant, city staff, saying the project won’t move forward if it has that condition added.

Following a short break so staff could convene, McDonald returned and reiterated that the cost of painting the path was not included in the project plans, but if the commissioners wanted to go in that direction, staff would need to reconsider the project altogether or possibly appeal the decision to City Council.

“The project with the potential condition as discussed, with the six-feet wide green paint for approximately three miles, may not fall within our budget for the project, so we may have to reconsider it if the Planning Commission approves with that condition and potentially appeal to council if that that’s how the outcome is,” McDonald said.

Donegan clarified that staff is essentially saying that they understand the commissioners’ concerns, but they can’t absolutely agree to the additional condition of approval requiring a study on the green paint option because the cost is unknown. As a municipal project, it requires a determined budget, he explained. It wasn’t previously analyzed because it wasn’t a component of the initial project, Donegan added.

“I think what he was simply saying is that if that’s the will of the commission, that’s the will of the commission. Public works will reassess after that, potentially do a preliminary analysis, see if it’s feasible, but he did want to reserve all of his options in case they do want to appeal that decision to City Council,” Donegan explained.

After confirming that it was the will of a majority of the commission that the bike lane be painted green for the entire length, Donegan suggested modifying the language in the section of the resolution that states that approval is granted based on the development plan and adding that “a six-foot green bike path lane shall be installed along the entirety of the bicycle path.”

Sadler made a motion that the Planning Commission adopt the resolution, approving the CDP, determining that the project is categorically exempt from the California Environmental Quality Act pursuant to state CEQA guidelines, and with the additional conditions as noted.

Following the vote, Sadler stated that there is a 14-day period for the right to appeal to City Council (routine announcement after every PC decision). Anybody that does not agree with the decision can appeal, which, as Sadler point out, apparently includes city staff.

Commissioners also commented on the overall safety of the street and potential measures to slow down speeding vehicles. Although any suggested ideas were beyond the purview of the commission for this particular item, which was limited to the plans for the bike lane.

Dubin suggested installing some speed tables (similar to what was placed along Temple Hills Drive) to slow down some of the fast drivers, particularly near the bottom of the hill. That would cure some of the late-night racing up and down Park Avenue, he said. A warning light, or something similar, would also be a good idea to alert drivers of the upcoming stop sign at the junction at Wendt Terrace, he added. He also recommended trimming the foliage so the stop sign is clearly visible.

“We know there’s a speed issue there, I don’t think there’s any question about that,” he said.

There was a general consensus on the dais in support of his suggestions.

Whitin also recommended looking into lowering the speed limit. Although that type of change would require a speed study and can only happen dependent on the prevailing speeds, others pointed out. It’s “horrifying” to hear that a resident has had nearly a dozen vehicles crash into his property over the past two decades, she commented.

“It’s a very graphic example of how dangerous the road is,” Whitin said.

McDonald said a speed study can be initiated through a resident request application, which would be submitted to the Parking, Traffic, and Circulation Committee.

Even though the other issues aren’t included in this specific project, this is an opportunity to start looking into all the other suggestions, Whitin said.

“We’re putting a spotlight on this place and I think we should take up the gauntlet and look at everything we can do to improve that road from a safety standpoint,” she said.

There were nearly a dozen public comments on the item, both in-person speakers and written letters. All supported the project in some way, with many emphasizing the need for speed mitigation measures and several suggesting a green-painted path and/or markings.

A handful of residents in the neighborhood spoke about safety concerns and the need to slow down speeding vehicles. It’s not a matter of if someone will get seriously hurt or killed, but when, a few agreed. One resident claimed his garage and/or on-street parked cars have been hit by speeding vehicles nearly a dozen times over the past 20 years. People often drive too fast downhill and around the S-curve, they then pick up speed down the long stretch of Park Avenue and often miss the stop sign at Wendt Terrace, many agreed.

Thurston Middle School Principal Joe Vidal and Laguna Beach Unified School District Assistant Superintendent of Business Jeff Dixon both wrote in favor of the bike lane on Park Avenue and encouraged the city to implement the green striping.

Gary Kramer, a local resident and chair of the city’s Parking, Traffic & Circulation Committee, also sent a letter to the commission in support of the project.

“We need to make the bike routes more visible to both drivers and bikers in town to improve safety but also, hopefully, improve greater use of bicycles in town as a mode of transportation,” he wrote.

Their recommendation includes a green bike path through town or, at the very least, green backed sharrow markings, Kramer added.

The overall visual impact of the project was also a topic of discussion at the meeting.

Whitin suggested condensing the signage to fewer poles. The staff recommended plans call for a lot of signage, she noted, and multiple signs sometimes tend to be redundant for no reason. She questioned if the “visual pollution” of excessive signs and poles was considered in the plans.

“I feel like we don’t have a good sense of what it’s going to look like,” Whitin said. “We really don’t want to disturb the views with a lot of signage and there’s a tendency in today’s world to over-sign things.”

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


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