In response to fears of runaway development along Laguna Canyon, the City Council weighed imposing a building moratorium, but ultimately instead called for public workshops to better define existing planning guidelines.
Forty-three people pled their case Tuesday before the Council, with roughly half seeking a halt on development and the other half asking that, moratorium or not, no roadblock obstruct a proposed housing project for the mentally ill homeless, still in the conceptual stage.
The ensuing dialogue raised issues including the need to address the canyon’s long-term development strategy, improved safety along the roadway and concerns about the homeless population.
An earlier controversy over a 40-unit artist live work project fueled simmering hostility over development that seemed to defy the small scale and rural character stipulated by the Laguna Canyon Annexation Area Specific Plan. The debate came to a full boil during a concept hearing for a permanent supportive housing for the homeless, jointly proposed by a partnership between Laguna’s Friendship Shelter and Irvine’s Jamboree Housing Corp.
Canyon residents expressed fear that piecemeal approval of large structures would lead to inappropriate development and loss of their neighborhood character. Such concerns prompted Council member Steve Dicterow to call for a public hearing to hash out the pros and cons of a moratorium on canyon development.
Canyon residents showed up in droves Tuesday to protest what they described as the misinterpretation of the terms “small scale” and “rural.” They also called for a halt on development until a more coherent plan to preserve the canyon’s character is established and until safety issues are addressed.
“We had rural character and small scale on the books, and we didn’t get that one right,” said Council member Toni Iseman.
“The out of character size and scale of these developments are a clear sign of disregard for preserving the very meaningful entry that provides a few miles of immense beauty and relief from the surrounding high impact developments of our county,” said fifth generation Laguna resident Daniel Marriner.
As a canyon homeowner with a daughter at Anneliese’s School and as an adjunct professor at Laguna College of Art & Design, he said he’s acutely aware of accident risks.
Marriner called for a development moratorium until city officials can “effectively address public safety issues regarding the separation between pedestrian, vehicular and bicycle routes.”
Other canyon residents pointed out the need to bury utility poles, address fire and flood preparedness, and ensure safe egress in the event of a disaster.
Permanent supportive housing proponents showed up in equal droves imploring the Council not to include their initiative in any potential moratorium. Related testimony threw into relief the complex homeless issues that require the city’s urgent attention.
“We need to find better, more coordinated ways” to address the homeless population, said Colin Henderson, founder of the Friendship Shelter. Though he believes the permanent housing will be part of the solution, he recognized the discontent with the temporary shelter in the canyon and problems and fears arising from the homeless excluded from the shelter who seek refuge in canyons and nearby neighborhoods. “Now is the time for wider public debate,” said Henderson.
To that point, 40-year residents Charlie and Ann Quilter noticed a significant increase in apparently homeless men wandering around properties in their vicinity, said Chris Quilter, reading a communication from his absent brother and sister-in-law. Though they are staunch supporters of the permanent housing project, they view public safety as a very real concern, said Quilter.
“It’s time for our organization and our supporters to acknowledge the reasonableness of our fellow neighbors’ fears…,” said Dawn Price, executive director of the Friendship Shelter, which operates the temporary shelter.
Police can control criminal behavior, but they can’t easily address the root cause driving that behavior in homeless individuals, said Friendship Shelter’s associate executive director Mark Miller, adding that the permanent housing could take on that challenge. His testimony highlighted what seems to be a growing consensus among housing advocates that the solution to complex homeless issues in Laguna will likely involve a combination of law enforcement and compassionate care.
“We’ve got to hash this out” and figure out a way to protect the canyon, preserve property rights and protect the homeless, said Dicterow.
Mayor Elizabeth Pearson identified four areas that still require solutions: public safety, a long-range development plan for Laguna Canyon from Woodland Drive to El Toro Road, the need to immediately clarify the canyon specific plan through Planning Commission workshops and homeless issues.
A community discussion on homeless issues need not come from the council, Pearson said, adding that she had encouraged the Friendship Shelter to engage the public. In fact, Price had noted that three public workshops are scheduled later this month.
“This needs to come together,” said Council member Kelly Boyd, who urged collaboration on canyon development concerns and allowing the permanent supportive housing project to continue through the stringent planning process. “You find the right people, you get together and you work it out. But you have to have direction. What the canyon really needs is their specific plan,” he said.
When all is said and done, “maybe we’ll get the definition of what rural really is in Laguna Beach,” Boyd concluded.