Council moves forward with acquisition of Laguna Canyon Road, hears update on undergrounding

By SARA HALL

City Council this week heard an update on the Laguna Canyon Road project, which focused on potential taking over ownership of the road and undergrounding utility poles.

Councilmembers voted 4-0 (Mark Orgill was absent) on Tuesday (Jan. 9) to proceed with public engagement for the project, move forward with submitting applications for various grants, and submit a relinquishment initiation letter to Caltrans to enter negotiations for the acquisition of Laguna Canyon Road.

The total project cost is estimated at $105 million. It’s impossible to speculate how much the city will ultimately receive in grants, said Public Works Director Mark McAvoy, but staff and the consultant team are confident that they will get some grant funding and the aim is to get as much as possible.

Although the city’s applications for several grants were previously unsuccessful, they plan on “whole heartedly” going after them again, added Assistant Director of Public Works Tom Perez. Staff has worked with experts to put together more competitive applications and have already started resubmitting them.

Although she has some concern about the cost, but if the ad hoc committee, staff and the consultant team are confident the city can get grant funding that gives her a better level of comfort on the issue, said Mayor Sue Kempf.

The relinquishment process will take some time, Kempf noted, and a proposed agreement will come back to council before moving forward. At that time, if they don’t like the terms, they can back out, she added.

“We’re not locked in,” Kempf said.

In the meantime, they can conduct outreach and gather feedback and ideas on design, she added.

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Council agreed this week to move forward with the process of acquiring ownership of Laguna Canyon Road

Councilmember Bob Whalen recalled when he first brought an agenda item forward to form the Laguna Canyon Road Task Force in 2013. The committee met many times and there was a strong consensus to underground the utilities, among other agree-upon elements. At the time, former Mayor and Councilmember Toni Iseman commented that the city won’t get the road they want with Caltrans in the picture. Although a decade ago, he didn’t necessarily agree. Whalen thought it was possible with collaboration with the state agency.

Although things have changed. Now, after staff work and recent input from the consultant, it’s become obvious that they can’t design the road that they want with the local improvements that Laguna Beach, as a community, wants under the Caltrans standards, Whalen said. They’ve come to a fork in the road, he added, quoting legendary baseball player Yogi Berra that “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

“We’re at a point where we’ve got to take it and we’ve got to take it now,” Whalen said. “It’s so apparent to me that we’ve got to opt for local control on this and we’ve got to design it to local standards if we want to have (a project with features the community wants)…that sort of fit the Laguna style. It’s us, we’ve got to control it. That’s never going to happen with a Caltrans design.

“I think we’re at that fork in the road. I think we need to take it. I think it’s clear which fork we need to take because the Caltrans (pathway) is a dead end,” he added.

Now the challenge is to kick off the process and try to design a road that a road that achieves the desired objectives and benefits (regarding public safety, traffic, etc.) and that is satisfactory to the community, Whalen said.

“I think we owe it to ourselves to try to do it,” he said. “I think it’s a project that is not too big for our community. It’s a project that we need to take on.”

This has been an ongoing concern with residents he’s talked to, said Mayor Pro Tem Alex Rounaghi, focusing on the potential fire risk of above-ground utility lines. As a council, their number one priority is public safety, he added, and the status quo is not safe from a fire perspective. Noting reports of small fires sparked by the utility poles along Laguna Canyon Road, Rounaghi commented that a shift in wind could have created a catastrophe for the community. It’s also an important evacuation route, he added.

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Based on the findings from staff and the consultant team, it’s hard to see how the city can move forward in making these necessary improvements to fix the road, from the undergrounding and safety perspectives, without relinquishment, Rounaghi said.

Although he liked the idea of undergrounding and possible amenities and improvements on the road, Councilmember George Weiss questioned the community desire for a bike and walking path. Whalen reminded the council that idea was mentioned during the Laguna Canyon Road Task Force discussions and was included in the report.

“I’m not saying I’m not supporting it, what I’m asking is there isn’t really a very detailed analysis of what the roadway would cost us, in terms of maintenance and liability,” and the potential risk of putting a bike path in and if they can mitigate some of that risk, Weiss said.

He asked for a thorough financial analysis that includes those items.

Kempf was supportive of adding a protected bike and walking path. Currently, it’s dangerous for people ride bicycles on the road, but many still take the risk.

“When I see someone riding a bike down Laguna Canyon Road I cringe,” she said. “I would be perfectly comfortable riding my bike in a protected bike lane on Laguna Canyon Road; but not now, there’s no way.”

Several councilmembers also noted that specific local environmental groups need to be clearly included as stakeholders. In his motion for approval, Whalen listed, at a minimum, to include Laguna Greenbelt, Laguna Canyon Foundation, Coastal Greenbelt Authority, CANDO, Laguna Canyon Conservancy, Orange County Parks and Village Laguna.

In addition to the ownership and undergrounding elements of the project, some of the key features being considered include: dedicated bike and pedestrian path(s); improved crossings; signal enhancements; enhanced bus and trolley stops, and native and low-water use landscaping.

The staff presentation included previous actions, potential funding opportunities and next steps.

Perez noted that council has taken previous actions to improving the corridor. Laguna Canyon Task Force final report was presented in September 2015 and listed a lot of the community’s desires, which was then incorporated into the project study report (PSR), he explained. It also addressed some of the findings that came out of the wildfire mitigation and fire safety report, he added.

Assembly Bill 2172 was adopted in September 2020 and that set the groundwork for relinquishment of Laguna Canyon Road from Coast Highway to El Toro Road.

A cost benefit analysis was presented to the City Council in September 2021 and they directed staff to move forward, Perez said.

The PSR was approved by Caltrans on Sept. 27, 2022. On November 15 of that same year, council received a project update and directed staff to solicit proposals for the project approval and environmental document (PA&ED) phase. The November action also authorized the city manager to execute a request for engineering advanced letter to initiate the Southern California Edison utility underground design.

On Jan. 28, 2023, at the council planning workshop, they created an ad hoc subcommittee to further study the issue. On May 16, council awarded a contract to the engineering firm, Mark Thomas, to provide professional services for the preliminary phase, which includes public engagement and the PA&ED. Council also directed staff to return with funding options.

According to staff, completion of PA&ED will signify that Laguna Beach has a viable project that is permitted for construction and will make the project much more competitive when seeking grants to fund construction.

The project is currently in the PA&ED stage, which is one of the most robust phases of the project with the most public engagement, Perez said. There has been a lot of work happening since the contract was awarded to Mark Thomas, he added.

A cooperative agreement was required with Caltrans outlining roles and responsibilities for the project. The agreement also outlines the process for obtaining Caltrans’ approval of the project.

City staff also successfully negotiated for Caltrans to perform all reviews at Caltrans’ own cost rather than billing the city for comparison, costs for the PSR phase exceeded $240,000).

“That was the significant achievement,” Perez said.

Mark Thomas also obtained the required encroachment permit to conduct the topographic survey, traffic counts and right-of-way mapping. The survey is now complete and the traffic counts are scheduled for January. The firm also obtained right-of-way documents from Caltrans and is developing the right-of-way mapping for the project.

Letters have been sent to all utility companies that own facilities along the corridor to request maps and record drawings of their facilities. These facilities are being incorporated into the project base maps as they are received from the utility companies.

The engineering firm also completed a detailed public engagement plan and a comprehensive relinquishment decision document to assist the city in critical decision making to further the development of the project.

Staff also initiated the SCE design for the undergrounding of electrical lines along Laguna Canyon Road from El Toro Road to approximately 1,000 feet south of Canyon Acres Drive. SCE design work is underway, which includes designing a relocation plan for its transmission and distribution facilities and preparing cost estimates for the proposed work. This work includes SCE investigating alternatives to underground the transmission lines within the Laguna Canyon Road right-of-way and outside of the right-of-way in the adjacent open space areas.

Recent discussions with SCE staff have indicated that various design constraints may lead to a hybrid approach, incorporating underground facilities in the roadway and, where constrained, utilizing the open space areas, Perez said. More information will be available as the company progresses with the design, which will be shared with the public once the preliminary concepts are complete.

City staff has also been working with SCE officials to determine the level of financial commitment the company is willing to provide with respect to the undergrounding portion of the project. SoCal Edison has issued a letter in support of the project and identified potential funding sources from the city’s existing Rule 20A credit reserve balance of $1.4 million and an anticipated overhead equivalent credit of $3.4 million. Rule 20A is a program in which underground conversion projects are funded by all of SCE’s ratepayers, not just those in the affected area, and are intended to underground existing lines and poles in areas that benefit the “public interest” as defined in specific criteria.

The letter also noted that a portion of Laguna Canyon Road could be included in the company’s targeted undergrounding program, which would underground the distribution lines within the project limits at SCE’s own cost.

The key objective of the public engagement campaign is to inform the community and gather feedback.

“We want people to know what it is that we’re doing, what the project is proposing, what improvements (are proposed) and what impacts may come out of those improvements,” Perez said. We want to ensure a broad participation, so we’re really interested in hearing from a wide variety of people, whether it’s businesses, residents, (or) visitors.”

Part of the plan is to engage the public “where they are,” he explained, in the form of public meetings, newsletters, drop-in conversations and making participation accessible. Engagement opportunities will include a public survey, business and residential outreach, pop-ups and intercept surveys, public meetings and Q&A sessions, and through the project website.

“As part of this work, we felt that it was very important to provide a clear project identity and really help to convey what this project is trying to do,” Perez said.

As part of that effort, staff created the project name “Laguna Canyon Road – Protect and Connect.”

There were mixed reactions during the public comment portion of the discussion on the item on Tuesday. Of the nine people that spoke, most were in favor improving the road in some way and/or undergrounding, but had a number of questions and concerns. A few commenters opposed the suggested bike path on the west side and encouraged the city to start with the public engagement effort before making any design decisions.

Some supported the idea of undergrounding, but not acquiring Laguna Canyon Road at this time, highlighting concerns about the financial commitment that would be placed on the city and the potential liability. There was also some concern about placing the utilities under the open space and about the overall scale and necessity of the project.

Others thought that it would be “a more Laguna Beach project” if the city owned the road. Another speaker recommended approving the item, but urged the council to consider the suggestions from the Laguna Canyon Road Task Force.

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


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