Despite the Emerald Bay Community Association’s financial support for a $2.7 million Coast Highway traffic signal near the gated main entry, Laguna Beach’s City Council on Tuesday delayed its installation and instead called for an independent traffic study.
The homeowners’ association, which sought required city approval for the project to proceed, performed two studies of its own and included one by the state’s Transportation Department stating that a signal at Emerald Bay’s main gate at Shamrock Road and north Coast Highway would improve traffic safety.
But the signal location falls within the scope of the city’s coastal development permit, which is based on whether a project has any adverse effects to coastal access, views and resources. The Emerald Bay Community Assn. has already received a coastal development permit from the county. The posh beachside community of 537 homes is unincorporated and has its own volunteer fire department and relies on other county emergency services.
Members of the homeowners’ association and service boards requested city officials waive the permit requirement, saying the partial signal, which would control northbound traffic only, will reduce the risk of accidents to motorists turning left into and out of the gated community.
At Tuesday’s meeting, long-term Emerald Bay residents voiced their disagreement as did others, many of whom commute north on Coast Highway.
“I can’t recall a more prolonged attempt to railroad a scheme for the convenience of the few, inconvenience of the many at public expense and under the false flag of public safety,” said Al Gumb, a 30-year Emerald Bay resident. “I say railroad because this issue was never brought up for general vote in Emerald Bay.”
Gumb said he never uses the main gate to head south into Laguna Beach and instead uses a tunnel under Coast Highway or Gate 9, which exits into southbound lanes. He said the “mistake” of a signal would endanger “thousands each day” and would be discovered too late.
Dr. Alex Metherell, an association board member, said he was at the scene of a fatal accident at community’s main gate several years ago. “As far as the ridiculous assertion that we are wanting this light for convenience, we are willing to spend $2.7 million to pay for this signal; we’re not asking Laguna Beach to pay a dime.” Metherell said he considers the signal a civic duty to Laguna residents.
“The injuries are to people outside of Emerald Bay because they’re the ones driving 60 miles, 70 miles per hour along Coast Highway,” he said.
In addition to conducting a study based on locals’ concerns of traffic delays and increased accidents, the council said they wanted to see if other improvements could negate the need for a signal. The community association has already agreed to widen the main gate’s entrance and exit to two lanes on each side, move the guard shack back to allow more cars to line up off of the highway and provide guest card passes, transponders and more parking inside the community for construction and domestic workers to use at all of the community’s entrances. The city has complained that workers who line up to enter Emerald Bay along Coast Highway present a traffic hazard and contribute to overflow parking in north Laguna neighborhoods.
“We’re not traffic engineers up here,” said council member Elizabeth Pearson, “and the only professional studies that have been done have been paid for by the Emerald Bay Assn.” Pearson said she was leaning toward supporting the signal and public safety, but had heard opposition from constituents, concerned about rear-end collisions due to the signal’s proposed location at the base of two hills, which limits motorists’ long-range views.
“We’re in a difficult position here because the people who pay property taxes in Laguna Beach and the people who vote for us in Laguna Beach are the residents who are most opposed to the light,” she said.
“There are ways of leaving without taking a left turn south,” pointed out councilmember Toni Iseman, who voiced concerns about drivers running the red light, increased exhaust from cars accelerating at a signal and what she considered the blight of the signal against the open hills.
The council decided to spend no more than $15,000 on a study and to hire an existing contractor for the study. The council will consider the issue April 15, following a meeting of the Emerald Bay association to decide on opening other entry gates to workers to alleviate queuing of vehicles at the main gate.