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City takes next step in acquiring Ti Amo property for future public use, possible fire station

By SARA HALL

In a split vote, City Council took the next step toward acquiring property in South Laguna for future civic uses, including as a possible replacement for the neighborhood’s local fire station, during a meeting this week.

On Tuesday (August 24), council voted 3-2 to certify the initial study/mitigated declaration for the acquisition of 31727 and 31735 Coast Highway; and directed staff to complete any steps necessary to close escrow on the subject property. Councilmembers Toni Iseman and George Weiss dissented. 

Although many of the comments during the nearly 90-minute discussion revolved around using the property as the future site for the fire station, that was not the issue at hand, Mayor Bob Whalen pointed out.

It was clearly stated that the purpose for Tuesday’s discussion and vote was to consider the IS/MND and if the property is suitable for acquisition for public purpose, Whalen said, “not necessarily a fire station, but possibly a fire station.” 

The MND covers all its bases and concludes that there is no significant impact on the environment that can’t be mitigated, he added. 

“I’m confident that that’s a well-reasoned and sound document,” Whalen said. 

Even though City Council was not considering the fire station use specifically, they did previously have a comprehensive presentation of 14 possible locations, Whalen pointed out, and staff is recommending that this is the best option that’s available to the city at this point.

“Is this the end of the story? I don’t think it necessarily is, I think it’s another step along the road,” Whalen said, and they may end up owning more than one piece of land in South Laguna. “This may be the first one, it may not be the last one, (and) it may or may not be where the fire station ends up.”

City takes Ti Amo property

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

The city is working on acquiring the property at 31727 PCH, most recently occupied by Italian restaurant Ti Amo by il Barone

Laguna Beach has entered into escrow to acquire the property at 31727 Coast Highway, most recently occupied by Italian restaurant Ti Amo by il Barone. The city offered $2.7 million for both parcels, a non-refundable deposit of $100,000, and a 90-day escrow period for the city to complete its review and acquisition process. Per the purchase and sale agreement, escrow is scheduled to close on September 6.

There was no appraisal, Iseman pointed out, and the city “jumped on” a price that is too high. While they’ve already committed $100,000 for the deposit, it’s not too late to stop before the city pays a lot more, she said. 

“Sometimes it’s hard to say, ‘I think we made a mistake,’” but it’s better than moving forward in the wrong direction, Iseman said. The right thing to do would be to move forward with some of the other locations, she added. 

Weiss said he wasn’t keen on moving forward with acquiring the property since so many residents have spoken out against it and there are still a number of concerns, including the small space, cost, and squeezing a lot of facilities into an area with little to no room to grow. 

 There are many reasons not to move forward, Iseman agreed, including the unknown ambulance factor, lack of public restrooms, view problems, and dangerous ingress/egress.

“This is not a question of slowing down a new building for the fire department, it’s just the opposite,” Iseman said, referencing the public speakers who emphasized the urgency for a new fire station. “We have to hurry up and do it right.”

Although staff emphasized that council was not tasked with deciding the ultimate use or development of the property on Tuesday. 

“Certifying the IS/MND report this evening does not approve building a fire station,” Senior Management Analyst Jeremy Frimond said. “We’re not asking for a use to be assigned or certifying that use at this time. This is a report strictly for the purchase of property.”

The environmental documentation discloses several potential public uses and conceptual designs, including a public park, restrooms, parking lot, and the replacement fire station.

Eventual assigned use of the site will be at discretion of the council to decide at a future date, Frimond said. After designating a use, a separate public entitlement and design review process will begin, he explained.

More than a dozen residents commented on the item during the meeting, mostly opposed to the idea of acquiring the land for a fire station, even though staff emphasized that the specific use was not decided yet. 

Although no decision on use has been made, the intent to eventually build a fire station is clear, several speakers agreed. And as a possible fire station site, it’s lacking.

Some noted that the parcel of land is not ideally set up to house a fire station, considering the ingress/egress, highway traffic, and small space.

Other comments from the public included concern about noise, view impacts, inadequate environmental and other studies, improperly piecemealing the process, and loss of a revenue=generating business. 

Impacts to views from private properties or property values are not considered a CEQA issue, Frimond explained, but they will be addressed and evaluated extensively in the entitlement and design review process. A more detailed traffic analysis will also be conducted to determine impacts of the assigned use and ingress/egress issues.

City takes 5th Ave

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

The vacant lots at 5th Avenue and Coast Highway in South Laguna

Also during public comment, there was more talk of utilizing eminent domain, which was previously brought forth as an idea to obtain an empty lot at the corner of 5th Avenue and Coast Highway.

During past conversations, most council members have been wary of taking that step. Several agreed that it’s not something the city has done previously and they are very reluctant to exercise that right on any unwilling private property owner.

Resident John Thomas questioned why the city won’t consider eminent domain if public safety is at risk.

“Let’s talk about the elephant in the room: Eminent domain,” Thomas said. “As is, the city is putting the interest of non-resident, land speculators ahead of the safety of residents.”

There are better sites available at better prices if the city were to utilize this power, Thomas noted. The parcels at 5th Avenue and Coast Highway are on the market, but “far above fair market value,” he commented; utilizing eminent domain would ensure that a fair market price is paid.

Totaling 0.26 acres, the three contiguous vacant lots of land at 31822 Coast Hwy are listed for sale on multiple websites for $4.5 million. First posted just over a month ago, and according to the property listing, this is the first time the site has been on the market since 1975.

Resident Jim Danziger suggested using eminent domain now on Ti Amo to ensure a fair market price and delay escrow while other sites are more thoroughly examined.

“The unwillingness to use eminent domain as leverage to ensure a fair price for both the landowner and the city on superior sites is truly incomprehensible, to me, on a core issue of public safety,” Danziger said. “Even if you rubber stamp this clever MND, claiming that the shortcomings for a fire station at Ti Amo can be fixed later, please find a way to delay the purchase until there’s a serious assessment of the superior available sites in South Laguna that can be purchased and will be much better for a 21st century fire station.”

Many residents also commented about the lack of involvement of locals who live in the neighborhood on the decision-making process.

“To summarily dismiss 87 pages of MND comments and responses from a long list of citizens conveys the message that the city is deaf to the voice of residents who have spoken up,” Thomas said.

The current actions on the Ti Amo sites are an extremely disappointing example of the lack of transparency in the city, Danziger stated. 

Although City Manager Shohreh Dupuis noted that she offered a staff member to do a presentation at the recent South Laguna Civic Association board meeting and they declined.

City take fire station

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

The current fire station #4 in South Laguna

In support of moving forward with the acquisition of the property were a couple of members of the city’s Emergency and Disaster Preparedness Committee.

It’s indisputable that the existing South Laguna fire station is grossly inadequate and endangers the community, stated EDPC member Tom Gibbs.

Apparently, the Ti Amo property is the best option the city has found, Gibbs said, and if a better site comes along they can go for that.

“There will always be something better over the horizon, but it’s a shot in the dark,” Gibbs said. “It’s no reason to delay on a hope and a prayer.”

This is only an evaluation of the acquisition of the property, Gibbs emphasized, and the MND is satisfactory. 

There will always be issues and problems with any site, he added, but it’s important to remember that mitigation measures can be addressed at the correct time later to deal with resident concerns.

“A project will always affect someone, no site is perfect,” Gibbs said. “The greater good is to proceed with this acquisition and pursue the development of a new fire station for South Laguna.”

While he understands some neighbors are concerned about potential negative impacts from a nearby fire station, the city has to consider the larger community, stated EDPC Chair Matt Lawson.

“Council has a duty to protect the many, even if there is some degree of inconvenience for the few nearby,” Lawson said. “We’re going to have the same issue no matter what site we pick for any new fire station.”

Lawson suggested moving forward with the acquisition as aggressively as the city can, and not doing so puts residents citywide and local firefighters at risk, he said.

“The best site for this fire station is the one we can acquire and move forward with as expeditiously as possible because the one we have there now is simply not adequate for South Laguna and it’s not adequate for the city as a whole,” Lawson said. “We’re basically about a spark and a gust away from a situation in which places like Paradise and Greenville find themselves in today.”