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Laguna Beach

 Volume 14, Issue 79  |  October 4, 2022


Council candidates discuss, debate hot topics covering development, fire safety, parking

By SARA HALL

A recent Laguna Beach City Council candidate forum featured a discussion-style format, with follow-up questions prompting back and forth between candidates. Their comments covered a variety of hot topics, including a local ballot measure, a South Laguna fire station, recent property purchases by the city, a parking structure downtown and taking over control of Coast Highway.

The forum was presented by the Laguna Beach Chamber of Commerce, Laguna Beach Board of Realtors and KXFM radio. KXFM radio host Ed Steinfeld moderated the three-hour event, held Thursday (Sept. 15) in council chambers and streamed live online. 

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

Council candidates discuss collage

Click on photo for a larger image

Photos courtesy of the candidates, City of Laguna Beach, or Mary Hurlbut

City Council candidates (top row, L-R) Peter Blake, Ruben Flores, and Sue Kempf; (bottom row, L-R) Mark Orgill, Jerome Pudwill, Alex Rounaghi and Louis Weil

The night’s first question about Measure Q, the Laguna Residents First ballot initiative, kicked off a debate that lasted through the evening and leaked into other discussion topics. 

Pudwill, a vocal supporter of the ballot measure, said developers are frightened of the initiative because it would take away their ability to “run rampant” over the community.

“The only safeguard that residents have against over-development is Measure Q,” he said. “It allows them to vote on projects that exceed the set standards.”

The community was founded on its “artistic charm,” Pudwill said and the measure helps retain that character. 

“Over-building is the bane of existence,” he added. 

Flores wondered why developers are “throwing so much money at this item” if it’s a “non-issue.” 

“What’s in their pockets that they have been planning so that after November things start to roll?” he questioned. 

There have been several years of 3-2 votes on council, Flores pointed out. A split decision could approve something that doesn’t appropriately represent the community, he commented. 

“It’s our little town,” Flores said. “Why not allow us to vote on those things that are pertinent?”

After being pressed by Blake and then officially asked by Steinfeld, Flores confirmed that he supported the measure. 

“I’m not against it,” Flores said, but there’s misinformation going around, including that he opposed it even though he wasn’t specifically asked. 

At previous candidate forums, Flores didn’t distinctly support or oppose the measure, but said there’s misguided fear around it and that city council needs a checks and balance system.

Although none of the other candidates were supportive of the measure. 

It’s a complicated 18-page document, Kempf countered. 

“Most people that read it don’t understand it,” she said, unless they’re land use experts, she added. 

If it’s about mass, height and scale, those areas are addressed in the recently approved city ordinance. During a special meeting on July 26, council voted 3-2 in favor of the staff-recommended ordinance, which had been postponed from the July 12 meeting

Measure Q goes far beyond that, Kempf said, it gets into permitting issues. She shared examples of public use projects that would head to a vote if the measure is approved: South Laguna fire station because it’s a lot consolidation and St. Catherine of Siena Parish School due to the change of use. Small businesses could also be impacted because of cumulative effect, she added. 

There are “leaks” when it’s actually applied, she said, and they already have a “good handle” on big development between the Planning Commission, City Council and now the ordinance. 

“Measure Q is very bad for our town,” Kempf concluded. 

There are a number of serious flaws with the measure, Rounaghi agreed with Kempf’s points. 

“Ballot box planning is a difficult thing to do,” he said, because “when you take something to the ballot, the only way to change it is to go back to the voters. So it’s not something to really play around with.” 

Blake also strongly opposed the measure. 

“It either increases property rights or it decreases property rights,” he said. 

He’s worked to make it easier for property owners to do what they want with their homes and businesses, Blake said, and this goes against that effort. The prior code was complex and made it nearly impossible to build, he commented. 

“This Q, which stands for quagmire, takes us back to those days again and in a big way,” Blake said. 

Orgill agreed with the comments supporting property rights and stopping overreach; however, Measure Q is a result of a lack of communication between city leaders and the community, he said. 

The entire situation surrounding Measure Q is “unfortunate,” Orgill said. It’s disappointing that this is a main focus during this election, he added, there are a number of other important issues they should be discussing. 

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Weil gets a “front row seat” to land use while sitting on the Design Review Board, he said, and, as such, he’s familiar with the city’s various planning policies.

“My challenge with a lot of those documents is that they’re out of whack, they were written in different decades,” he said. “We need to align them and get clarity, and tighten the things that we want with our community. We don’t need to throw more wrenches in.”

More ordinances aren’t the solution, they’re just a Band-Aid, he said. 

“We’ve got so many Band-Aids stapled all over our land use,” Weil said. 

Addressing the crowd, Weil asked how many people were involved in writing the ballot initiative. After only one attendee raised their hand, he spoke directly to the person.

“So you took it upon yourself to exclude everyone else in the room from the conversation,” he said to the audience member. 

The person tried to respond, but Weil continued, noting that the city’s elected leaders won’t be involved in Laguna Beach’s land use if the measure passes. That’s not working together and it’s not representative government, he said. 

“Measure Q is not the right way,” Weil said. “It was not done by the public.”

Although, more than 200 people were involved in creating the measure, not just the “one person sitting in the audience” and 2,500 voters signed to get it on the ballot, Pudwill countered.

“So saying that it’s not being democratic, again, is malarkey,” he said.

Those 200 people are still just a small fraction of the entire population, Weil responded. 

Citing similar measures in neighboring cities where only a few projects have actually resulted in a public vote, Pudwill also said it’s inaccurate to say it’s going to happen all the time. He also pointed out that three councilmembers can overrule the city height restrictions, so residents can’t count on them to keep development within community limits. 

The measure isn’t complicated or long, Pudwill responded to Kempf’s criticisms. 

“I figured it out,” he said.

It’s simple compared to the city’s Downtown Specific Plan, which is more than 170 pages, he pointed out.

Council candidates discuss fire station

Click on photo for a larger image

Photo by Mary Hurlbut

City officials are planning on replacing the current South Laguna fire station

The measure also came up during a discussion about wildfires, public safety and a new South Laguna fire station.

Steinfeld asked Pudwill if adding more helicopter water refill tanks should go to a vote of the people.

“No, of course not,” Pudwill answered. “These are safety measures that have to be taken.”

Pudwill, who was a resident during the 1993 fire and who lives less than a mile from one of this year’s blazes, agreed with other candidates that fire safety is a top priority.

Steinfeld also asked about “the importance of having the freedom to add a fire station without having to go through an election.” Flores pointed out that the status of the fire station should have been studied years ago and Measure Q isn’t what’s stopping it from being built.

“That we’re putting the pressure on Measure Q is silly,” Flores said. 

As far as prioritizing public safety is concerned, the fire station should have been built years ago, Rounaghi agreed. 

City leaders need to do everything in their power to address the wildfire danger. Had the two fires that broke out near Laguna Beach earlier this year happened during the peak season, mutual aid and resources may not have been available, Rounaghi pointed out. It could have been a lot worse.

“Luck is not a strategy,” Rounaghi said. 

Several candidates mentioned other fire mitigation measures, including defensible space and hardening the home.

The city has purchased or taken steps toward purchasing property for a fire station in South Laguna a few times and it hasn’t panned out, including 31727 Coast Highway, most recently occupied by Italian restaurant Ti Amo by il Barone, Flores pointed out. Now, council is considering buying another parcel of land in South Laguna for the same purpose, he added. 

“I think that we need some direction. I think we need some management. I think we need to figure out what we’re going to do before we do it,” Flores said. “I don’t think Measure Q is going to stop us from being concerned about fire.”

Although Flores thought purchasing the Ti Amo property for future use as a fire station was the wrong move, other candidates backed up the action. 

Buying Ti Amo, whether it was for a fire station or not (at the time, its future use was vaguely described as public use, which frustrated some officials and residents), was in the public’s best interest at the time, Weil said. 

“It was an opportunity at the time,” he said. “Real estate is an opportunity business.”

It could pan out for other uses in the community, they don’t know yet, but selling it simply because it didn’t work as a fire station isn’t a priority. They have to think it out first, Weil said. 

“We have to have thoughtful leaders,” he said. They should be able to make decisions, adjust and adapt, Weil added. 

“The acquisition mode the city’s been on I think is in the best interest of our long-term,” he said. “Do we have all the right fits yet? Maybe not.”

Purchasing Ti Amo was a great decision, Blake agreed. They have the option to sell it if they don’t use it and they could make money off the deal, he explained, or they could use it for community services. 

The new property the city is moving toward could allow for a better facility, Blake noted. 

Council candidates discuss cars downtown

Click on photo for a larger image

Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Vehicles crowded in downtown Laguna Beach this summer

Parking, traffic and transit were also hot topics during the forum, which brought up discussion about another recent city deal. 

The recently approved agreement with the Laguna Presbyterian Church was negotiated for just this purpose, Blake noted. It’s a good location with a lot of benefits, he added. 

“We have a golden opportunity there to build a structure,” Blake said. 

Although not everyone was on board with the idea.

“I don’t want any large parking structures in the downtown area at all,” Flores confirmed. “It’s a waste of taxpayers’ dollars and it’s just going to add to the bottleneck that we already have here.”

If the city is going to add a parking structure, it might be something out at Act V, he added, suggesting a few locations to park tourists outside of downtown during the busy season. 

“I think we have the ability to make smaller parking structures outside of the downtown area,” Flores said.

Pudwill also raised concerns about induced demand.

“Basically: If you build it, they will come,” he said. “That is an issue that bothers me quite a bit.”

He also strongly disagreed with the plans for the Presbyterian Church parking. It makes “absolutely no sense,” Pudwill said. 

“The idea is to keep traffic out of town, not bringing it in,” said Pudwill, adding a few other concerns with the agreement. 

Blake and others suggested building a structure near the village entrance.

There’s room near the village entrance, Orgill agreed. He’d prefer to see it on city-owned property, but nothing too obtrusive and it should be in scale with the town. 

Rounaghi is open to the idea in the village entrance, but it would have to be part of a long-term plan that makes sense.

Act V was also mentioned by several candidates as a possibility.

His preference would be peripheral parking at Act V, Rounaghi said. If they underground the utilities, which he suggested they should do anyway for fire safety, there might be an opportunity for a bus/transit and bike lane. 

They should look at the most cost-effective and evidence-based practices used in other cities that they could emulate in Laguna Beach, he suggested. 

“Also, what’s the highest and best use of our city-owned assets? Is it parking? I don’t know,” he said, agreeing with Kempf about studying the data to come up with comprehensive solutions.

Pudwill agreed with Rounaghi about undergrounding and possibly opening up a shuttle transit lane. They also need some resident-dedicated parking downtown, he added. He also suggested a parking lot behind the Playhouse.

There are a lot of good ideas of where parking could be placed, Weil said. He also suggested partnering with the schools to better meet their parking needs. 

“As a community, we recognize that parking is a challenge in this town,” he noted. 

Most of the candidates noted their interest in hearing the data and learning more at the listening sessions with Kempf and Mayor Pro Tem Bob Whalen, hosted as part of the process as the city develops a parking master plan.

Kempf, calling herself a data-driven decision maker, said they’ve been gathering information (like cell phone statistics showing the areas people frequent and a map of hot spots) that provides a more analytical perspective. It should be presented at an upcoming community meeting. She also wants to hear more feedback and ideas from residents.

Although her thinking about parking has changed a little bit over time. They also have to factor in mobility, she added.

“I like the idea of a more walkable town because our downtown is so small,” and it’s just a nice experience to walk through the new promenade and toward the beach, Kempf said. “It’s more than just building a structure somewhere, it’s ‘How are we going to move people around town?’”

Overall transit in the city is an important part of the conversation, several candidates agreed. 

“We can’t think about parking without thinking about transit,” Rounaghi said. 

 The circulation element of the city’s general plan hasn’t been updated in more than 20 years, he pointed out. 

“A lot of things have changed since 1998,” said Rounaghi, 24, jokingly adding that he was born the year before. 

Transportation is evolving, Weil agreed. 

The city should do an evaluation of Glenneyre Street’s efficiency, he suggested, answering a question about the popular city street. A study could identify how they can improve parking, cycling and walking, he noted, commenting on the uneven and broken sidewalks. 

“Our walkability in our community is extremely challenging,” Weil said.

The stripes on Glenneyre are “abysmal,” Pudwill agreed, the crosswalks are barely visible at night.

Many of the candidates also supported taking over control of Coast Highway and also possibly the canyon, from Caltrans.

Caltrans has become a “very difficult agency to work with,” Kempf said, emphasizing her frustration with the state agency.

“I’m interested in taking that over for just that reason because if we own the road we can slow the traffic down,” Kempf said. 

They also need to be thoughtful about their own liability as a city, she added. 

But, Kempf noted, they should wait until the expensive sidewalk project is completed.

They need to revisit the discussion of taking over Coast Highway from Caltrans, Weil agreed. The canyon road has been failing for years, he added. 

“Is it the right thing for us? Is it the right thing for the beautification of Laguna Beach? Because, frankly, Caltrans has delivered generic results or under-delivered generic results – given our sidewalk project – for decades,” Weil said. “I think we can do it better the Laguna way.”

Both Rounaghi and Orgill also supported taking over control of the thoroughfares, agreeing that there are a lot of factors to consider.

“It’s a no brainer,” as long as they carefully look at the return on investment and it pencils out, Rounaghi said.

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

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

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