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Laguna Canyon Road project, facilities master plan, fuel modification treatment protocols up for review by council

By SARA HALL

Laguna Beach City Council has several notable items on the agenda for tonight’s meeting.

At tonight’s meeting (Tuesday, Jan. 9), council will consider and/or hear: An update on acquiring and undergrounding utilities on Laguna Canyon Road; consultant services for the development of a facilities master plan, and review the city’s fuel modification treatment protocols.

During regular business, council will hear about the Laguna Canyon Road project update, discuss potential funding opportunities and consider the city’s next steps.

The item also includes council consideration of the public engagement implementation plan and authorizing the city manager to execute and submit a RAISE grant match commitment letter for up to $1.28 million.

If approved, the item also authorizes the city manager to submit a relinquishment initiation letter to Caltrans to enter negotiations for the acquisition of Laguna Canyon Road.

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

The city is looking into acquiring ownership of and undergrounding utilities on Laguna Canyon Road

Council has taken previous actions to create a project to construct safety and active transportation improvements along the roadway, according to the staff report. A project study report for the improvements was approved by Caltrans on Sept. 27, 2022. On November 15 of that same year, council received a project update and directed staff to solicit proposals for the project approval and environmental document (PA&ED) phase. The November action also authorized the city manager to execute a request for engineering advanced letter to initiate the Southern California Edison utility underground design.

On January 28 of last year, at the council planning workshop, they created an ad hoc subcommittee to further study the issue. On May 16, council awarded a contract to the engineering firm, Mark Thomas, to provide professional services for the preliminary phase, which includes public engagement and the PA&ED. Council also directed staff to return with funding options.

According to the staff report, completion of PA&ED will signify that Laguna Beach has a viable project that is permitted for construction and will make the project much more competitive when seeking grants to fund construction.

A cooperative agreement was required with Caltrans outlining roles and responsibilities for the project. The agreement also outlines the process for obtaining Caltrans’ approval of the project.

City staff also successfully negotiated for Caltrans to perform all reviews at Caltrans’ own cost rather than billing the city; costs for the project study report phase exceeded $240,000.

Mark Thomas also obtained the required encroachment permit to conduct the topographic survey, traffic counts and right-of-way mapping, the staff report notes. The survey is now complete and the traffic counts are scheduled for January. The firm also obtained right-of-way documents from Caltrans and is developing the right-of-way mapping for the project.

Letters have been sent to all utility companies that own facilities along the corridor to request maps and record drawings of their facilities. These facilities are being incorporated into the project base maps as they are received from the utility companies.

The engineering firm also completed a detailed public engagement plan and a comprehensive relinquishment decision document to assist the city in critical decision making to further the development of the project.

In another update on the project, staff initiated the SCE design for the undergrounding of electrical lines along Laguna Canyon Road from El Toro Road to approximately 1,000 feet south of Canyon Acres Drive. SCE design work is underway, which includes designing a relocation plan for its transmission and distribution facilities and preparing cost estimates for the proposed work. This work includes SCE investigating alternatives to underground the transmission lines within the Laguna Canyon Road right-of-way and outside of the right-of-way in the adjacent open space areas.

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Recent discussions with SCE staff have indicated that various design constraints may lead to a hybrid approach, incorporating underground facilities in the roadway and, where constrained, utilizing the open space areas, staff notes in the report that more information will be available as the company progresses with the design, which will be shared with the public once the preliminary concepts are complete.

City staff has also been working with SCE officials to determine the level of financial commitment the company is willing to provide with respect to the undergrounding portion of the project. SoCal Edison has issued a letter in support of the project and identified potential funding sources from the city’s existing Rule 20A credit reserve balance of $1.4 million and an anticipated overhead equivalent credit of $3.4 million. Rule 20A is a program in which underground conversion projects are funded by all of SCE’s ratepayers, not just those in the affected area, and are intended to underground existing lines and poles in areas that benefit the “public interest” as defined in specific criteria.

The letter also noted that a portion of Laguna Canyon Road could be included in the company’s targeted undergrounding program, which would underground the distribution lines within the project limits at SCE’s own cost.

Click on photo for a larger image

Photo by Mary Hurlbut

As the city works on a facilities master plan, the subcommittee on the issue is recommending taking an aggressive approach to maximize utilization at the Laguna Beach Community and Recreation Center (formerly St. Catherine of Siena School)

Last up during regular business, council will consider an agreement for consultant services for the development of a facilities master plan.

Staff is recommending council approve a $760,000 contract with Griffin Structures, Inc., for the work. The item also includes future project related expenses and change orders not to exceed $40,000.

Each councilmember is also being asked to provide (by February 1) up to two names of people to potentially participate in a community working group to study the topic.

The Facility Master Plan Ad-Hoc Subcommittee also made some recommendations that will be presented to council, including directing staff to: Take an aggressive approach to maximize utilization at the Laguna Beach Community and Recreation Center; present a plan to council in February to incorporate a new fire station #1 at the Village Entrance, and how this change aligns with the fire department standard of cover and the proposed parking structure; and work with Griffin Structures Inc. to develop a scope of work to evaluate the viability of public-private partnerships at the Village Entrance that includes a program to solicit such partnerships, and next steps and present the scope of work and at a future council meeting for approval.

At their February 21 meeting, councilmembers approved the priorities they set at their annual planning workshop (held on January 28) and directed staff to work with a council subcommittee on the development of the scope of work and the procurement process for the facilities master plan effort.

The facilities master plan aims to provide the city with information regarding current and future facility needs and establishes a framework for the orderly growth of city services, administration and community programs, according to the staff report for next week’s agenda item. The goal of a FMP is to evaluate the condition of city facilities, assess their ability to meet the needs of current services, anticipate growth and future service delivery requirements, analyze gaps in providing services and create an action plan to address these issues. When the plan is finalized, it will provide recommendations with cost estimates to guide future decisions, timelines and steps forward in delivering city services.

Council approved the scope of services on May 16 and city staff began the RFP procurement process. After the evaluation process concluded, the panel unanimously selected Griffin Structures, Inc., as the highest qualified consultant.

Also during regular business, council will review the city’s fuel modification treatment protocols.

City staff will present several choices and is recommending council direct staff to proceed with treatment option three, which follows a mechanical treatment with no herbicide for its fuel modification program in 2024. This option states that: Non-native annuals, herbaceous plants and grasses will be mowed; maintenance passes shall be initiated prior to nonnative plant material reaching a height of three feet; a minimum of three passes per year will be required in each zone and additional passes to mow grasses may be required in wetter years with more growth.

According to the staff report, this treatment program would likely not achieve the same level of passive restoration as a protocol utilizing herbicide; however, it could achieve fire safety standards commensurate with the existing treatment protocols.

If council determines that the treatment plan can meet the program’s fire safety objectives within the directed timeframe, then council will consider directing staff to continue with option three in 2025 and 2026.

Staff will report back to council before 2027 with results of the new protocol.

If approved, the action will continue allowing the use of synthetic herbicide within the city’s required habitat mitigation sites.

“Residents have expressed concerns regarding herbicide use in the city’s fuel modification program and have asked the City Council to consider alternative protocols. As a result, staff is presenting the City Council with five treatment options, each with different methods, costs, impacts on habitat restoration, herbicide usage and erosion effects. These options range from continuing the current protocols to introducing mechanical treatments without herbicides or using exclusively manual hand-pulling methods,” the staff report reads.

Also during regular business, staff is recommending that council continue the commercial district beautification/property maintenance ordinance until the March 26 meeting.

The council agenda is available online here. The closed session will begin at 4 p.m., followed by the regular meeting at 5 p.m.

Members of the public may speak in person in council chambers.

To participate via Zoom, you may click here from your computer or smart phone. You may also call 669.900.9128 and wait for instructions. The Webinar ID is 91641723096#. If you have issues getting into the Zoom meeting or raising your virtual hand to comment, you may text the city clerk at 310.722.5051.

The meeting can be watched live on Cox channel 852 or on the city’s website at www.lagunabeachcity.net/agendas.

Comments may be submitted on any agenda item or on any item not on the agenda in writing via mail to the City Clerk at: 505 Forest Ave., Laguna Beach, Calif. 92651, by email to amckay@lagunabeachcity.net, or by using this interactive form. Comments were emailed to the City Clerk no later than 3 p.m. on January 8 (the day before the City Council meeting) in order for them to be submitted to the members of the City Council the day prior the meeting, which provides them sufficient time to review the comments.

You may continue to provide written comments up to 12 p.m. today (the day of the meeting). While these comments will be provided to the City Council at 2 p.m. today, councilmembers may not have sufficient time to review them prior to the meeting.

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

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