City moves forward with possible alternative measure to address development height, scale, parking issues


There may be another measure on the ballot for Laguna Beach voters this November following a City Council decision this week that moves forward with an initiative aimed at addressing height, mass/scale and parking. 

Councilmembers voted Tuesday (April 12) 3-1-1 to approve the staff recommended land use and parking provisions to be considered for development of a future code amendment and/or ballot measure. Councilmember Toni Iseman dissenting and Councilmember George Weiss abstaining.

The action included an agreement with StuMollrich Communications for the period of four months for ballot advisory services in an amount not to exceed $10,000 per month, extends the agreement up to $35,000 for unanticipated and additional services that might be needed and appropriates $75,000 from the general fund undesignated fund balance for ballot advisory services.

This alternative initiative is in addition to the Laguna Residents First PAC proposed ballot initiative that council decided earlier this year to send, unaltered, to the voters at the November 2022 general municipal election.

This week, Mayor Pro Tem Bob Whalen said he’d like to see it come back as an ordinance the council can adopt, discuss it and modify as needed, and then draft a ballot measure that’s the best that they can come up with to put in front of the voters.

“Then they’ll decide either the one that LRF put together is the one to go with and better, or the one that we’re proposing is better,” Whalen said. “We either come up with a better mousetrap or we don’t and the voters decide.”

He wants to see them create an initiative that controls the size of development, while still promoting reinvestment in the community.

It should be simple, so voters can easily understand it, said Mayor Sue Kempf. The LRF initiative is complicated and not easy to understand, she noted, even for a land use expert like Community Development Director Marc Wiener, who presented staff’s recommendation.

It should address the major issues that residents are concerned about, like the height limit and scale, but without overreaching, Kempf said. 

“I want to make sure there’s some kind of balance,” she said. “I think we’re on the right track.”

City moves Cress and PCH

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The city is working on an alternative initiative to address development

On February 15, council considered options related to the Laguna Residents First proposed ballot initiative and unanimously decided to send the measure, unaltered, to the voters in the November election.

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.

At the same February meeting, during a second, separate motion, council voted 4-1, with Councilmember George Weiss dissenting, to direct staff to return with proposed alternatives addressing height, mass/scale and parking.

On Tuesday, Whalen said he’s heard a number of concerns about the initiative from residents who thought it could be done better in a competing initiative. As a member of the city council, it’s his duty to do so, Whalen said. 

“There was a substantial effort made by a number of residents of our community to put this on the ballot…but that doesn’t mean we have to accept that wholesale and just lay down and say ‘We’re not going to do anything in response,’” he said. 

He believes there’s good intent in a lot of the provisions of the initiative, but that it’s flawed in in its execution. It goes too far, Whalen said.

As he previously commented, a key concern is the cumulative effect provision, which Whalen feels it “drags in way too many projects.” The parking initiative is also too much and not appropriate, he added. 

“I’d like to take a crack at creating a ballot measure that incorporates some of the good thinking that went into the LRF initiative, but improves upon it,” Whalen said. 

What staff has proposed so far responds to a lot of the key concerns, he noted. 

Staff suggested provisions that are intended to “protect the city’s unique character by minimizing the mass of large buildings, creating structures that are in scale with existing development, and promoting a pedestrian-friendly environment using courtyards and other public serving areas.”

A notable provision proposed by staff is an amendment to the city code that would require voter approval if a project is more than the 36-foot building height limit.

“Regarding building mass, Laguna Beach is characterized by its human-scale design, small lots and eclectic mix of architectural styles,” the staff report reads. “In recent years, concerns have been raised that the current development standards do not protect against monolithic block-long development that would be inconsistent with the character of the city.”

Wiener explained that to protect against that concern and addressing some lot merger limits that could be modified by the council, staff is proposed that any modification to the Downtown Specific Plan area allowing lot mergers larger than 10,000 square feet and 5,000 square feet along lower Forest Avenue requires voter approval.

City staff is also proposing that any property within 500 feet of the DSP area will have a maximum lot size merger of 15,000 square feet.

They want to ensure that there are some limitations within the DSP sphere of influence, Wiener said. 

Public facilities would be exempt from these lot merger standards. 

City moves Taco Bell

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The former Taco Bell at Coast Highway and Cleo Street is currently being remodeled for a new business

Staff also proposed a new set of development standards that would apply to project sites larger than 15,000 square feet, including that the buildings must be designed to appear from the street frontage as two or more distinctly different developments and that open-space features are required to occupy a minimum 10% of the lot (unless modified by the Planning Commission due to site constraints). The standards also include requirements related to improving the public right-of-way, below-grade parking and incorporating environmentally sustainability features. 

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Staff also proposed an update to the parking in-lieu fees. 

“We would like to re-evaluate that fee,” Wiener said. 

Staff proposed an update to the parking in-lieu fee that would ensure businesses pay their fair share of the parking need generated by their business use, Wiener explained. Currently, there are a lot of sites in town that don’t meet the required parking, and intensification is sometimes increased as new businesses come in, he noted. 

The parking in-lieu fee would apply to new businesses and uses, not just intensification, Wiener said. 

If there are between one and five spaces not provided, no in-lieu fee is required, but businesses will pay a monthly fee for employee parking in a city designated lot or at an alternative location approved by the city.

This exemption is meant to not be too onerous on small businesses, Wiener said. 

If there are more than six spaces not provided in a project, for each required parking space not provided, the in-lieu fee amount will be based on (together with other available parking revenues) the cost of acquiring or leasing land and constructing a parking space to serve that business.

No fee is set for this yet, Wiener noted, it’s still conceptual.

Revenue from the new in-lieu fee would go to the strategies identified in the city’s parking master plan, which is planned for adoption by July 1, 2023. The plan will assess the parking issues in the city, recommend strategies and suggest opportunity sites. 

Staff doesn’t have the expertise needed for this type of project, explained Assistant City Manager Ken Domer, and realized they would need assistance on drafting the ballot language and the process.

Ballot advisory services are a specialty, to ensure things are completed within the law and meet all the criteria, he said. 

They reached out to several firms through an informal RFP process and discussed their needs, he said. It was informal because of the expedited timeline, he added. It’s a very active season right now, so some of the firms were already contacted elsewhere, he explained. 

StuMollrich Communications submitted a proposal for the advisory services. The company has local knowledge and experience in ballot initiatives, Domer noted. 

City moves Sleepy Hollow jpg

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Homes and businesses near Sleepy Hollow Lane and Coast Highway

More than a dozen speakers commented on the item, mostly concerned with the alternate measure and the potential conflict with the consultant. 

Although a few speakers noted that the LRF initiative has good intention, but goes too far. Most people are opposed to over-development, which is the primary concern the initiative is working to address, but some are worried it over-reaches and smaller projects will bear the brunt of any untended negative consequences. 

The LRF measure aims to preserve the 36-foot height limit, ensure monolithic buildings aren’t constructed and address parking issues to mitigate any future problems. These are laudable goals, but there are issues with the proposed ballot measure that could have unintended consequences, Dan Rosenthal commented. 

A more reasoned and simple approach is called for and, fortunately, council recognized this and directed staff to address the legitimate concerns. The proposal that staff returned with is a good start, Rosenthal said. 

Resident Cody Engle supported the proposal and gave credit to the residents who created the LRF initiative. There are legitimate concerns that it goes too far and could result in freezing upgrades of commercial portion of the community. 

What staff has suggested makes sense, he said, although there is still some work to be done, particularly on the parking standards.

The LRF initiative is aimed to stop over-development, but anything that pertains to city code can be changed with a majority vote by council, noted another speaker, Chris Catsimanes. 

“So, what we’re trying to do with the initiative is put it into law so we don’t have to depend on the vicissitudes of the council to depend on where we’re going for the next 10 or 20 years,” he said. 

He’d like to see a realistic, overall development plan of where the city is headed.

We can’t be reactive all the time and I think that’s what we’re doing right now,” Catsimanes said.

Reading some of the suggestions in the staff proposal, certain Greek legends would be “green with envy with all the Trojan horses.”

There are issues with parking, day trips and intensification, he said, any measure needs to consider the dynamics. 

Several speakers also had concern about hiring Stu Mollrich, who has connections, worked on political campaigns and/or strategy and/or donated to councilmembers or local PACs that donated to councilmembers.

Some commenters noted that there are other firms out there that would have no conflict or even the appearance of potential conflict. A few speakers noted that it should have gone though the competitive request for bids process. 

Ann Christoph said hiring a political consultant is not the correct course of action. The work can be done by city staff and the city attorney, she noted. 

The city shouldn’t take a position on the LRF initiative or attempt to sway public opinion by push polls, development of campaign approaches or talking points, she said, which creating a competing initiative appears to do.

Proceeding down this path and working against the effort of the citizens who wanted the LRF initiative on the ballot demonstrates a lack of understanding by the city of why residents started this effort, she added. 

“If citizens felt their concerns were being reasonably addressed by the city and the council, that they were being listened to, this initiative would never have been created,” Christoph said. “By proceeding with this agenda bill and continuing to try to thwart residents, instead of trying to understand and address their concerns, the city will only exacerbate the problems and increase divisions in the community.”

Answering a question about Mollrich’s experience with municipal ballot initiatives, City Manager Shohreh Dupuis said they primarily discussed his work on local measures, stopping the airport expansion and other state proposition work.

Considering his past work, as a town of 23,000, hiring him doesn’t seem appropriate for this particular project, Iseman noted. It’s also “absolutely stone deaf” because of the political connections involved, she added. 

Although not all public speakers thought there was any potential conflict of interest. 

The representation is not political on this project, Engle said. It’s a different client and project, he added, and considering how busy city staff is, it makes sense to get some extra help on the project. 

Other companies’ staff contacted were either not interested because it was a small contract or unable to take on the work, Dupuis noted. 

City Attorney Phil Kohn also did not see any conflict of interest with the council approving the contract.


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