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Laguna Beach

Council sends initiative measure, without alteration, to the voters; directs staff to study alternatives


City Council this week considered options related to the Laguna Residents First proposed ballot initiative and unanimously decided to send the measure, unaltered, to the voters.

At the meeting on Tuesday (Feb. 15), during a second, separate motion a majority of councilmembers supported directing city staff to further study possible alternatives to address some of the concerns the initiative raises. This measure is attempting to tackle a very complicated topic in a complex city, said Mayor Pro Tem Bob Whalen. 

“It’s an interesting initiative,” said Whalen, who added that he spent a lot of time studying the measure and its provisions. “It’s going to go on the ballot…we’ll see what the people do with it.”

Whether it passes or not, the “world is not going to end,” he added. “This was borne somewhat out of fear,” after a few specific projects were proposed, Whalen said. 

Whalen made two motions.

Council’s first vote passed unanimously to receive and file the certification of the ballot measure; and submit the initiative measure, without alteration, to the voters at the November 2022 general municipal election and direct staff to prepare the appropriate resolutions for consideration and action at a subsequent meeting.

Council voted 4-1, with Councilmember George Weiss dissenting, on the second motion to direct staff to return with proposed alternatives addressing height, mass/scale and parking. 

Whalen suggested looking into grandfather parking rules, appropriateness of an in-lieu fee, and how to deal with historic outdoor dining and innovative parking credits currently in city code.

The Laguna Residents First PAC’s initiative, titled “An ordinance creating an overlay zoning district and requiring voter approval of major development projects,” seeks to create an overlay zone that covers all property in the city located within 750 feet of the centerline of either Coast Highway or Laguna Canyon, which effectively encompasses 51% of all parcels in the city.

On Tuesday, council received and filed the certification of the Laguna Residents First Initiative Ballot Measure from the Orange County Registrar of Voters and considered options for the proposed ballot initiative.

Their choices included:

–Adopt the ballot initiative measure, without alteration, and direct staff to prepare the appropriate ordinance for consideration and action at a subsequent meeting.

–Submit the initiative measure, without alteration, to the voters at the November 2022 general municipal election and direct staff to prepare the appropriate resolutions for consideration and action at a subsequent meeting.

–Order additional reports pursuant to the election code before determining whether to adopt the initiative measure or order an election.

They unanimously agreed on moving forward with the second option. 

Staff estimated the overall cost of the general election, to include a single ballot measure, is between $45,000-$61,000. According to the staff report, council could also add one or more competing measures or other unrelated measures to the ballot at a later date for approximately $8,500 per additional measure. The last day a measure can be placed on the ballot is August 12.

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On January 11, council heard a fiscal impact report and land use implications analysis for the initiative. The discussion led to concern by some that the report wasn’t thorough enough regarding the benefits, raised questions about the cumulative impact and comments that the initiative had good ideas that were poorly executed.

Council sends initiative hotels

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Photo by Scott Brashier

Hotels, businesses and houses along the shore in Laguna Beach

Whalen summarized the reasons articulated in the initiative as why the measure is needed: To preserve the look and feel of the eclectic pattern of Laguna; careful management of further intensification of land use; prohibit large, monolithic developments; ensure each development project mitigates its impact; and promote innovative and compatible development.

“I’m all for all of that,” as is probably everybody on the council, Whalen said. “While the stated purpose and objectives of this initiative are laudable and ones that I fully support, I think when you get into the details of the initiative the implementation of it is going to have some severe and unintended consequences.”

Specifically, the cumulative effect provision is a concern, something Whalen mentioned at previous discussions related to the initiative. It does not mean 88,000 square feet that has been constructed, that may be one trigger, but it means that there are developments submitted to be reviewed in the last eight years that aggregate to that amount, it doesn’t have to have been constructed. Once that’s in effect, any development project would qualify under how cumulative effect is defined in the initiative, he added, including small-scale, local projects.

“That’s my concern,” Whalen said. “I think the focus on major projects is a valid and good one, I think the execution of this is going to really drag in a lot of smaller businesses.”

It could have a negative impact on the “little guy,” the small business owners they want to keep in town, agreed Mayor Sue Kempf.

Historic buildings haven’t been demolished, Kempf pointed out, and other historic buildings have been or are in the process of being restored under the city’s guidelines. They are already being renewed and re-used without the initiative. These resources have been protected in a number of other ways, she said. 

“It’s permitting by ballot measure, it’s never a good idea,” Kempf said. 

Referring to issues Costa Mesa has faced with a similar measure, Kempf said it might be difficult to get projects off the ground if developers are worried about too much time, expense and risk.

“You don’t want to strangle land use because you never know what may be needed in the future,” Kempf said. 

Council sends initiative overlay zone

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

The initiative seeks to create an overlay zone that covers all property in the city located within 750 feet of the centerline of either Coast Highway or Laguna Canyon, encompassing 51% of all parcels

Whalen also noted concern about the potential negative effect on housing projects. A project with more than nine units could be subject to a vote, he said, but they want senior or assisted living projects that may have more units and this may discourage those. 

“It started with an excellent intent and purpose and reasons, but in the attempted implementation it just went too far, it cast too broad a net,” and might ultimately have a negative effect on some of the goals the city is trying to pursue,” Whalen said.

Regarding housing projects, development with under nine units or anything state-mandated are exempt, Weiss said, so it’s “clear sailing” in those two areas.

Above nine units would be allowed, Weiss explained, and a vote would only be triggered if it meets one of the other thresholds. 

But the key concern is how the measure could potentially bring in small-scale projects based on past proposed developments, not necessarily projects that were actually built, Whalen replied. 

“The cumulative effect, that’s really where the problem lies,” he said. 

If the initiative passes, voter approval would be required on “major” commercial projects that exceed 22,000 square feet of floor space, create 200 or more additional daily trips by vehicles, fail to meet allowable on-site parking requirements, attempt to combine lots that exceed 7,500 square feet of total area (6,000 square feet in downtown), or exceed current height limits.

These triggers relate to proposed major developments within 750 feet of Coast Highway or Laguna Canyon Road.

A provision in the initiative factors is the “cumulative effects” of other projects within a half mile of the project site that occurred within the past eight years. If it hits certain triggers, it would be considered a major development project, regardless of the scope of the actual project.

The ballot initiative covers big development, Weiss pointed out. There are misunderstandings about that and how it gets triggered, he said. 

There are already projects in development right now that are notably large in scale, he pointed out, and more might come to town.

“It’s kind of scary,” Weiss said. 

The city has granted so many parking and other variances to so many projects in past years that it’s a big issue in town already, he added. All of these problems have added up over time.

“What we’ve seen over the years is death by a thousand cuts,” Weiss said. 

The ballot initiative will protect existing businesses, he said.

More than two dozen members of the public commented on the topic. Opinions on the initiative were split, echoing some of councilmembers’ comments both in favor and opposed. 

Supporters said it helps the city build better, but not bigger. It’s common sense and long overdue, several agreed. Part of what makes Laguna desirable is its scale and village feel, several speakers agreed, this measure will help protect that character. It addresses intensification and gives a voice to the people.

Residents from nearby cities, including Newport Beach and Costa Mesa, also called in to share their experience with similar measures. Despite the concerns from opponents when the measures were first proposed, residents reported that growth and development have continued and the limits imposed are now accepted as a part of doing business in the city.

Opponents warned that this is a needless preventative measure for a problem the city doesn’t have. It could disincentivize developers and lead to further destruction of older buildings that are in need of repair. Several speakers noted that the ideas in the measure are poorly executed and that the complicated issue needs to be studied further to find a better alternative.

A few people noted that Laguna Beach is notably different than some of the other cities where similar measures have been implemented.


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

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