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Volume 15, Issue 45  | June 6, 2023Subscribe

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First candidate forum covers village character, long-term plans, housing issues


The first Laguna Beach City Council candidate forum this week covered some important local topics and provided insight on who’s running.

Community group Village Laguna hosted the meeting on Monday (Aug. 29) in a packed council chambers with more than 85 people watching online.

All seven candidates participated: Sue Kempf, Peter Blake, Ruben Flores, Mark Orgill, Louis Weil, Jerome Pudwill and Alex Rounaghi.

The event included discussion on Laguna’s village character, the city’s artistic history, protecting or enhancing community features, creating a long-term vision plan and housing issues. 

During their opening statements, the candidates emphasized their backgrounds, prior civic engagement and why they decided to run for council. 

For Blake, it was a simple message: His statement has been made in his actions, decisions and council work over the last four years and he stands by it.

Orgill listed his previous service in the community and dealing with the process at city hall. 

Kempf also referenced her time on council and some of the projects she’s help usher through, like the Neighborhood and Environmental Protection Plan.

Others emphasized specific issues: Flores, a local landscape designer and owner of Laguna Nursery, commented on beautifying the town; and Rounaghi, chair of the Housing and Human Services Committee stressed the importance of housing.

Some mentioned speaking for the people, Pudwill noting that some resident voices have been shut down and Weil commenting that he would represent all residents.

A question early on in the forum focused on the village character of Laguna Beach and how each candidate would help preserve and enhance it.

The “village atmosphere” is emphasized in some of the early documents describing the original design of the community, Weil said. Throughout the city’s history, residents have come together to enhance the key components of the community’s character (like protecting the ocean and environment, school programs, or enriching local art). On the DRB board, they weigh those choices at every meeting, he noted. 

“If we’re not coming together and working on these things, we’re not preserving the village character,” Weil said. 

Kempf shared a list of ideas to preserve and enhance the community’s character, including: Reduce the town’s unsheltered population; keep storefronts open; new mass, height and scale ordinance with design guidelines for new development; take over control of Coast Highway from Caltrans and restore the library to the original design.

Blake noted the unique makeup of the town has encouraged him to stay local and get involved with the community. 

“I love Laguna Beach because it’s small and it’s quaint,” Blake said. “It’s always been my goal to contribute into keeping this town small and cultured and sophisticated.”

That’s why he’s lived and worked in town for about 35 years, he added. 

Laguna Beach is different from other villages primarily because of its art-centric history, Flores said. It’s integral to include a focus on art going forward, he added. 

Flores and others mentioned the natural resources.

“What really defines Laguna Beach is the blue belt and the green belt,” Rounaghi said. 

He’s committed to preserving those for future generations, he noted. 

It’s important to work with the county on fixing problems, like the Aliso Creek berm and ensuring the ocean is the cleanest it can be, he noted. On the land-side, they also need to protect the city’s open space.

Laguna Beach should also be a place where elderly residents are taken care of and artists and culture can thrive, Rounaghi said. 

“You can’t think about the village character without thinking of the people,” Rounaghi said.

When considering how to protect and enhance Laguna’s small village atmosphere, Orgill said a lot runs through his mind, but there are a few areas of focus.

“First of all, recognizing the importance of our community and its heritage with the arts and what that brings to our identity as a community is very important to me,” Orgill said. “I’d like to see more people encouraged to come downtown so they can start to participate and have a conversation in how we move forward with our future.”

First candidate forum covers city hall

Click on photo for a larger image

Photo by Mary Hurlbut

City Council candidates covered a variety of local topics during the first forum of the year

Orgill also brought up the idea of a long-term strategic plan, a suggestion that was echoed several times during the forum.

“We can start to ask all of these questions and address these things,” he explained. 

The plan would also include an implementation policy, he added

“We have a habit of falling behind when it comes to implementation,” Orgill said.

They need a long-range vision plan, Pudwill agreed. The city had something similar in the past, he said. 

Pudwill, who has lived in Laguna for more than three decades, said some things have changed over time. 

“Frankly, I miss what we had,” he said. 

Pudwill noted that there are barely any empty storefronts at Laguna’s coastal neighbor, San Clemente. It’s similar to what Launa was 30 years ago, he noted, with small, independent, unique shops that serve both residents and visitors. 

“That, to me, is kind of a goal that Laguna should shoot for,” he said. 

It’s important to mitigate tourism and parking issues while planning for the future, he said.

They need to clarify what they’re looking for, as a city, when it comes to development and what the future of Laguna Beach looks like, Flores said. 

“Let’s spell it out so that it’s not such a mystery and there’s not such fighting going on,” he said.

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It all comes down to a comprehensive plan, Orgill said. 

The city can anticipate projects the community wants and work them into future budgets, he explained. That will ensure residents are getting what they need.

When answering a question about affordable housing, Rounaghi emphasized that it comes down to local control.

“The state is going to do what the state wants to do,” he said. 

They have to address the city’s significant housing needs, while also complying with state laws, he explained, and that can be a challenge. Citing a large “totally out of scale” development project in Redondo Beach that was allowed under state law, Rounaghi noted that Laguna Beach needs to make this issue a priority.

“We need to be very serious about this issue and look at what the facts are, look at the laws and make sure we’re meeting our housing needs locally so the state doesn’t come in and take over,” he said.

The state has mandated that Laguna Beach plan for 394 units in the city’s 6th Cycle Housing Element, which covers the 2021-2029 planning period and assesses the current and projected housing needs for all economic segments of the community. It also includes policies and action programs that further the production of housing.

The city doesn’t need to construct the 394 units identified as part of the Regional Housing Needs Assessment, but has to ensure that there are adequate housing sites and zoning standards to accommodate the required number of units.

Right now, they just have to plan for those units, Kempf explained, but they need to plan for them before the state intervenes. 

“The state is becoming so heavy handed that I think they’re going to come and, if the city’s not building these, they’ll come down and force the issue, which is a problem,” Kempf said. “We have to be aware of what the state’s going to do because if we don’t get out in front of this and start actually putting a shovel in the ground we’re going to be told to do it in a way that we may not like.”

There are a number of feasible sites, and council identified three earlier this year, but none of them come without their challenges, she noted. 

Many of the candidates agreed that part of the plan needs to include bringing in ADUs that are out of compliance.

Kempf and Pudwill both mentioned looking into adaptive re-use of commercial buildings.

Some of the other questions were regarding closed session agendas and the Brown Act, wasteful spending, city employee morale and turnover, sea level rise and the Laguna Residents First ballot initiative (Pudwill supported it; Flores didn’t distinctly support or oppose, but said there’s misguided fear around it and that city council needs a checks and balance system and the rest of the candidates opposed it).


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

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In Memoriam - Stu Saffer and Barbara Diamond.

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