Laguna Beach

Proposed ballot initiative discussion raises questions, concerns and support 


A discussion of a proposed ballot initiative this week led to concern by some that a recent fiscal 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.

On Tuesday (Jan. 11), council heard a fiscal impact report and land use implications analysis for a Laguna Residents First PAC proposed ballot initiative that would require voter approval on certain commercial development projects.

The agenda item also led to a conversation about over-development in Laguna Beach, and even some agreement on what most residents would like to see for the future of the town.

They all live in Laguna Beach for a reason, Mayor Sue Kempf said in reply to an accusation that some councilmembers want extreme development in the city.

They like the town, including the scale of it and the look and feel of it. They don’t want tall buildings in Laguna and the height limit is there for a reason, she added.

“Nobody is pro-development up here,” Kempf said. “And I think the whole council would like to protect that, now it’s just a matter of how you go about doing that.”

The commercial building stock is clearly aging, she said, and that needs to be addressed. It’s also a challenge when the town is in the Coastal Zone and has to comply with regulations from the California Coastal Commission.

“It’s a balancing act that we have here. We have to keep the town vibrant and make it look good without doing too much. So, it’s a tricky thing. If you swing the pendulum one way too far or the other way too far, you get in trouble,” Kempf said. “I’m very keen to protect the town that we have, make it look better and make sure its sustainable going forward.”

None of them are in support of over-development in Laguna Beach, agreed Mayor Pro Tem Bob Whalen.

His concern isn’t regarding the big projects, but the smaller projects and the cumulative impact provision.

“It sort of acts as a drag net to pull in a lot of other projects,” Whalen said.

Due to some of the public testimony, Whalen asked for more staff analysis on the cumulative effect and the impact on housing.

There was also some concern from councilmembers about the parking variances and ensuring that developers are required to mitigate for loss or lack of parking. 

Proposed ballot initiative beach hotel and houses

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Discussion about a proposed ballot initiative led to concerns about over-development and protecting the character of Laguna Beach

There was no vote on Tuesday, but council directed staff to further study the initiative regarding Whalen’s points and send a memo to councilmembers before it returns in February for a status update on the signatures.

Laguna Residents First submitted some 2,600 signatures to Laguna Beach City Clerk Ann Marie McKay on Monday (Jan. 10). If the Orange County Registrar of Voters certifies at least 1,845 signatures, the “Beautiful Laguna Overlay Zoning District” initiative would qualify to be placed on the ballot this November.

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 a height of 36 feet.

The initiative also 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 their November 2 meeting, council directed that the analysis be completed by Kosmont Companies, a Manhattan Beach-based real estate and economic development advisory firm.

Council also previously directed staff to have the initiative reviewed by the California Department of Housing and Community Development, investigate potential better approaches to parking, provide further analysis of the cumulative effect provision and the proposed initiative’s impact to outdoor dining, provide an analysis of lot consolidation policies; and refine the list of projects that would have triggered the proposed ballot initiative in the last five years.

On Tuesday, Kosmont President Ken Hira provided an overview of the report. It was focused on examining the near-term and long-term impact on the general fund if the measure is approved.

Laguna Beach has not seen a lot of development in recent years, which could indicate a potential need for rehabilitation in the next 10 to 20 years. Retail and hospitality, for example, are in a far more fluid and dynamic environment all across the state, he explained.

“The commercial world…it’s changing,” Hira said. “We are in the middle of a land use revolution.”

The current “doorstep economy” (the rise of home delivery services) are emblematic of the need for operational changes and flexibility, he said.

Laguna Beach’s fiscal health and sustainability relies, at some level, on the vitality of restaurants, retailers, and hotels – and their capacity to remain competitive, Hira said. The timing of adding a voter required approval process is “less than ideal” given the fluidity in today’s environment, he added.

Kosmont’s research found that voter approval requirements could add a “significant element of risk and uncertainty that can discourage investment in new projects, as well as the rehabilitation of underutilized or blighted properties.”

According to the report, if a project goes through the process, the city could see lost revenue opportunities if the project is not approved or pursued.

“The initiative could have a noticeable negative fiscal impact to the city’s general fund over the next decade,” Hira said.

Expected revenue loss could range from $1.5 million to $2 million per year within the first five years based on a hypothetical 10% to 30% range of voter approval, according to the Kosmont report.

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, explained Community Development Director Marc Wiener. If the total adds up to more than 800 average daily trips or 88,000 square feet, then it would be considered a major development project, regardless of the scope of the actual project, he said.

Answering a council question about how to protect out-of-scale development, Wiener said they can study the neighborhood, the downtown for example, and identify the areas where they want to keep the small-scale character. They also can look for opportunities for potential larger buildings, he added, and cap how large the lots can be (in the case of lot mergers).

Given the average 50-60-year-old age of the commercial building stock, it’s likely that more rehabilitation or expansion projects will be proposed in the future, Hira noted. So the longer the voter requirement is in effect, the greater the potential annual loss to the general fund, he said.

Proposed ballot initiative beach hotel and houses

Click on photo for a larger image

Photo by Scott Brashier

The discussion also included the impact of development on neighborhoods

The argument of losing potential revenue is important, said Councilmember George Weiss, but has to be balanced with what the community will gain in terms of quality of life or the impact on neighborhoods.

His comments were echoed by several public speakers who said that’s a key goal of the initiative. This is the result of the public’s frustration from feeling ignored, said Councilmember Toni Iseman.

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The ballot initiative will protect the character of Laguna and the quality of life for residents, several speakers agreed. The report places no value on the look of Laguna, Gene Felder said, but it’s very valuable to the people who live here.

More than a dozen people spoke during public comment, most in favor of the initiative. Several raised concerns that Kosmont’s report was misleading and left out important points.

The interpretation about lost revenue opportunities if a project is not approved is taken out of context, noted Trish Sweeney. That potential lost revenue is true of any proposed project, anywhere, at any time, with or without an initiative because it’s hypothetical, she said.

The consultant also ignored potential cost benefits and other advantages gained from the initiative that an appropriately comprehensive report would have included, Sweeney added.

“This reads like it was prepared for developers, not a small town that should be putting residents first,” Sweeney said.

People can vote however they want when it gets on the ballot, concluded longtime local MJ Abraham.

Although not everybody was as confident about the initiative.

Joe Hanauer said he agrees with some of the objectives of the initiative, but it’s flawed overall and should be the basis for a more involved discussion.

“What this…report does is provide a framework to enable discussions to take place and come up with the right kind of initiative, if that, in fact, is appropriate,” Hanauer said. “All of us…want to make sure that we don’t have unbridled development.”

Nobody wants huge monolithic buildings that breach the height limit, he said. This is the phase one in the process to come up with a better idea, Hanauer said.

“It’s the right time and the right place,” Hanauer said, “it’s just the wrong initiative.”

It’s about what they want their community to look like in the future, agreed Cody Engle. The initiative has some good ideas, but it’s not well executed. They have to be sensible about this moving forward, he added.

The building stock is getting older in town and some property owners won’t want to invest in a building unless they can see an increase in revenue, Engle noted.

But some weren’t on board with the idea at all.

The entire discussion is a waste of time, Councilmember Peter Blake said. In reality, the initiative is an attempt by the people behind it to usurp the power of the voter and create the town they want.

There are already numerous safeguards in Laguna Beach regulating development, he added. 


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

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