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City takes next step in assuming ownership of county-controlled beaches in South Laguna


City Council unanimously agreed this week and took the next step in the process of assuming ownership of county-controlled beaches and coastal property in South Laguna.

Council voted 5-0 on Tuesday (Nov. 15) to approve a Cooperative Transfer Agreement with Orange County to transfer the identified parcels, easements, leases, licenses, permits and memorandum of understandings, as assignable, for city ownership, maintenance and operations of the identified coastal properties. Properties include Aliso Beach parking and concessions, capital improvements and maintenance responsibility of beach accesses and all marine safety operations.

“The whole agreement looks to be in really good shape,” said Mayor Pro Tem Bob Whalen.

It’s great to be getting these properties from the county, added Councilmember George Weiss. 

“I’m looking forward to these being our beaches,” he said.

The action also authorized and appropriated the utilization of advanced one-time funds for initial equipment, supply purchases and personnel expenditures to the fiscal year 2022-23 adopted budget to include authorizing: the addition of one full-time administrative assistant for marine safety; one full-time human resources supervisor to coordinate recruitment activities for necessary deployment of city-staff for South Laguna beaches and, re-classifying the marine safety chief one level higher on the non-elected management personnel salary schedule.

This is the accumulation of a lot of work over the last two years, said Assistant City Manager Ken Domer.

Council unanimously agreed on September 20 in favor of pursuing a deal with Orange County to assume ownership of county beaches and coastal properties within Laguna Beach city limits in exchange for a lump sum of $22 million.

The agreement is scheduled to be considered by the Orange County Board of Supervisors on December 6. 

City takes next step in assuming ownership West Street Beach

Click on photo for a larger image

Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Council approved a transfer agreement this week to take control of all county-owned beaches, including West Street Beach 

City staff developed the agreement with the county to facilitate the efficient transfer of the identified properties. As part of the transfer, and in acknowledgement that the city will be assuming long-term capital, maintenance, and operational costs for the properties and services, the county will compensate the city in the total amount of $22 million, $2 million of which will be transferred within 30 days.

There are about 70 fee parcels and easements. Domer explained that it’s a flexible transfer agreement and ensures if they miss one for any reason, there’s an authority assigned, both to the city manager and the counterpart at the county, to identify that easement for the property to make sure it can be transferred. It also includes the assignment/assumption of permits, licenses and leases.

It also ensures advancement of the $2 million lump-sum payment for equipment, supplies and recruitment needs, he noted. 

“That’s important because there’s a lot of staffing that we need to do,” Domer said, including bringing in a marine safety administrative assistant, an HR supervisor and movement of the marine safety chief to a higher responsibility band.

Based on the need to begin recruiting marine safety positions, training and onboarding new staff, and purchasing necessary equipment and supplies, the goal would be to commence ocean lifeguard operations at all South Laguna beaches on a “base” staffing level as of March 1, 2023.

City staff estimates that it will need an additional 50 seasonal ocean lifeguards to achieve peak staffing levels for all beaches within the city by summer. The start date of March 1 will allow crews to begin base level staffing and permit both seasonal and full-time marine safety officers to prepare equipment and develop staffing consistent with the rest of the city, scaling up to peak staffing by approximately June 10, 2023, for the summer.

Marine Safety Chief Kevin Snow confirmed they looked at different timelines and are happy with this proposed start date of March 1.

“The bottom line is we’re leaning into this,” Snow said. “This has been a long process, a lot of talk, and a lot of time to think about how we’re going to do this.”

The city has responded to mutual aid calls at county-owned coastal properties for many years, he noted, so they already have a lot of experience, but welcome local knowledge.

They also plan to do three weeks of “ride alongs” and share information with the current contractor, he added. Snow himself has also been spending a lot of time in South Laguna recently to ensure there are no emerging challenges. 

They also have a very aggressive plan for hiring, Snow said. 

“We have changed our process completely,” he said. 

He’s confident that some of the changes they’ve made will bear fruit.

“We’re going to allow people to try out with three days’ notice on Main Beach, five days a week starting in January,” Snow explained, and they will run five different lifeguard academies based on the opportunities with the different schedules. 

They’re positioning the city to be competitive with compensation, he added.

“So we’re really doing everything that we possibly can,” Snow said. “I feel positive that we’re going to get there, it’s going to take a lot of work, but we will be successful.”

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The department will be required to purchase up to six lifeguard towers, various telecommunication equipment, rescue tubes and paddle boards for the new staffing, and CPR, EMT and U.S. lifeguard association manuals for all new staff. The department will also need to increase its available rescue vehicles. In addition to the seasonal and full-time marine safety staff, it is requested that the council approve the establishment of an administrative assistant position for the marine safety department.

Mayor Sue Kempf mentioned the previously proposed rainbow-colored lifeguard tower. After the new agreement goes through and the city owns the beaches in South Laguna, they can work on the project locally, she noted. 

Since the city will be purchasing towers for the beaches, Laguna Beach Pride 365, which proposed the colorful tower for West Street Beach, could purchase the paint, confirmed City Manager Shohreh Dupuis. They can make it happen, she and Snow agreed.

Most of the council discussion and questions revolved around maintenance responsibilities, particularly around the Orange County Flood Control District parcel at the mouth of Aliso Creek.

The OC Flood Control District will transfer the property in fee to the city, but they will retain the easement over it for flood control purposes, Domer explained. 

Coastal water quality monitoring will continue to be conducted by the county and the South Orange County Wastewater Authority. SOCWA would also maintain the outfall pipeline that extends 1.5 miles out into the ocean. OC Public Works will continue performing the beaches and creeks total maximum daily load sampling.

The city would also conduct as-needed maintenance for the berm. It requires inspections a few times during the winter and breached, if need be, Domer explained. 

Whalen asked that it be clarified in the agreement that they are retaining the flood control obligations.

Some of the discussion focused on removing the invasive Arundo, or giant reed, near the outflow.

Kempf said she recently observed Hallie Jones from the Laguna Canyon Foundation, which is contracted with the county, working to get rid of it. It grows really fast, she noted. 

“So nasty, that stuff is horrible,” Kempf said.

Clearing the Arundo is a horrible job and a lot of work, she noted. 

“We need to figure out a better, longer-term solution to that,” Kempf said. 

The city will take a more proactive approach to get to the Arundo on a more regular basis, Domer confirmed. That will include going through the California Coastal Commission, if need be, to get an extended permit.

“To make sure we stay on top of it,” he said. 

Once the city becomes the property owner and gains responsibility of it, they can work with local partners on how best to tackle the invasive plant, Domer said. Whether that’s taking it out at the roots, as Councilmember Toni Iseman suggested, or using an herbicide, or another method. 

Answering a council question, Domer said an item regarding the new vehicles will be brought to the council in January.

Public comments focused on protecting the marine sensitive habitats, maintaining the creek flow and the unique conditions of the coastline. A couple of speakers also suggested utilizing the knowledge of South Laguna residents.

John Thomas, speaking on behalf of the South Laguna Civic Association, said they support the transfer of the county beaches to the city. He suggested a proactive meeting to share local knowledge and discuss issues, like characterization of the shore profile, water safety, water quality, environmentally sensitive areas, parking, public restrooms and enforcement. All of this was mentioned in a letter to the city from SLCA, he pointed out. 

“Every portion of the Laguna Beach coastline is unique,” Thomas said, quoting the letter. “As a community, we welcome the incorporation of the South Laguna beaches into the city’s management.”

It’s clear a lot of thought and work went into the agreement, he noted, and they all want to see the effort and the new arrangement succeed.

Whalen agreed with the idea for a community meeting to share knowledge.


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

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