Laguna Beach

Council sends initiatives regarding hotel development, worker wages to the ballot


City Council considered options related to two hotel-focused ballot measure initiatives this week and unanimously decided to send both, unaltered, to the voters for final decision in November.

Following a 5-0 council vote on Tuesday (May 10), the initiatives will head to the November 8 ballot. The two initiatives are titled: “An Ordinance Amending the Laguna Beach Municipal Code to Create a Minimum Wage and Workplace Standards and Protections for Hotel Employees” and “An Ordinance Creating a Hotel Development Overlay Zoning District and Requiring Voter Approval of Hotel Development Projects.”

Members of the UNITE HERE Local 11 union, which represents Southern California hospitality workers, were proponents for both initiatives.

It makes sense for the union to support the first initiative regarding worker wages and conditions, Mayor Pro Tem Bob Whalen noted, but not the second initiative about hotel development. 

“I don’t understand why they would wade into the land use area and, frankly, with an ordinance that I think will stifle any kind of upgrade to the properties, which would improve the conditions for the workers,” Whalen said. “It’s a head scratcher.”

Mayor Sue Kempf agreed that the new initiative on hotel development is not necessary and counter-productive. If hotels are improved they will pay better, she noted. 

With the LRF initiative also on the ballot, it also creates a confusing ticket, particularly if both were to pass, Whalen added. 

“I don’t support the Laguna Residents First initiative and I certainly don’t support this one either, but it does need to go to the ballot and people in the community will make their best judgement on it.”

Councilmember Peter Blake rejected the idea behind the worker initiative.

“I’m adamantly opposed to a vote of the people determining what the capitalist system is going to pay their staff,” Blake said.

It’s difficult for many hotels to find workers right now, so many are already paying above average wages, he noted. It’s a bad idea to essentially mandate raises, he said.

This is about unionization of hotels in Laguna Beach, Blake added. 

During public comment, The Ranch at Laguna Beach General Manager Kurt Bjorkman asked the council to put the initiatives on the November ballot.

“Let the voters decide,” he said. “Simple as that.”

Answering a question from Whalen, Bjorkman said he can’t speak to what the other hotels in town pay their workers, but The Ranch pays “way above the minimum wage and actually beyond the proposed number” in the initiative. 

“I assume that most are in that same (pay range),” he noted. 

It would be helpful to have some solid information on what hotel workers are currently being paid in Laguna Beach, Whalen said. 

“I, for one, think they need to be making more than the minimum wage. It sounds like they are (already),” earning more, Whalen commented. “They work hard, they’re tough jobs, they deserve good working conditions.”

Information on the current hospitality environment in Laguna Beach would be beneficial so the voters can decide on how to proceed, he explained. There’s a lot more information in the initiative that goes beyond wages, including items that cover the day-to-day management, which isn’t appropriate for the council to impose, but rather for the voters to decide, Whalen said. 

Council sends initiatives Coast Inn

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Coast Inn renovation plans were recently approved

The initiative related to hotel workers would, among other things, require hotel owners and operators to provide hotel employees a minimum wage of $18 per hour beginning 60 days after the effective date of the ordinance and increasing by $1 per hour each year beginning Jan. 1, 2023, until 2026. 

Ada Briceño, co-president of UNITE HERE Local 11, urged the council to adopt both initiatives, which provide balance, fairness and protection, she said. 

“Collectively, these two initiatives protect our community from unchecked, irresponsible hotel developers and ensure safe and decent work conditions for hard-working hotel workers,” Briceño said. “Taken together, these policies are a slam dunk that will benefit not only the residents of Laguna, but also greatly help workers who fuel this city’s economy.”

Hotel workers were severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and, even now as business is returning, they’re struggling to make ends meet given the recent increase in the cost of living. Most who work at Laguna Beach hotels drive in from other communities, she added. 

It’s time for Laguna Beach to adopt these initiatives, said Juan Muñoz, a researcher for UNITE HERE Local 11. Other cities in Southern California have adopted similar hotel worker initiatives that ensure they receive a livable wage. And the hotel development initiative will give the community a direct voice in the process, he added. 

“Both initiatives are good policy that will preserve the character of Laguna and help the workers that are the backbone of Laguna’s economy,” Muñoz said. 

The staff report explains that the second initiative would, among other things, require every hotel development within 1,000 feet of the centerline of Coast Highway or State Route 133, to comply with specified development standards and, if not in compliance, seek a variance from the council and obtain approval from the voters at a special or regular election. 

The specified development standards include (notwithstanding certain sections of city code as described in the initiative): 

–Density shall be limited to one guest room or suite per 800 square feet of land area.

–Required parking for a hotel shall be 1:5 spaces for each room, which opens to a public way or corridor, yard or court, plus one space for each 15 rooms or fraction thereof, plus two spaces per each residence.

–No parking reduction shall be granted to ancillary uses.

The building height standards of the property’s underlying zone are incorporated into the proposed overlay district.

The overlay will require a zone change and voter approval for the following types of hotel developments: Major hotel development projects adding more than 20 guest rooms; major remodels and hotel development projects with significant existing illegal or unpermitted construction.

On April 12, council voted 3-1-1 to approve staff recommended land use and parking provisions related to the development of a future code amendment and/or ballot measure. Councilmember Toni Iseman dissented and Councilmember George Weiss abstained.

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, extend the agreement up to $35,000 for unanticipated and additional services that might be needed and appropriate $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 unanimously decided earlier this year to send, unaltered, to the voters at the November 2022 general municipal election. 

The LRF 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 Weiss dissenting, to direct staff to return with proposed alternatives addressing height, mass/scale and parking.


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


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