2009 was a year of firsts for Laguna. First off, the town almost lost the hospital where, for 50 years, many of its native sons and daughters were born. Under a new name and new owners, the hospital is focusing on emergency service and acute care as its lifeline.
Another first, or at least not since the ‘60s and ‘70s, was the number of no-permanent-address residents that set up camp on city beaches, parks and passageways. Peak numbers were touted at anywhere from 80 to 150 itinerant campers at Main Beach’s internationally famous boardwalk and Heisler Park’s view-popping picnic areas and sheltered bathroom entries. Not a pretty site after a month or two, due to the lack of showering, laundering and accumulation of personal baggage. Not what you’d call a song-filled summer of love.
Another sticky and stinky issue was the prospect of prohibiting fishing, commercial and pleasure, along the town’s seven miles of rocky coastline as part of a push to establish an all-inclusive marine reserve. The purpose of the aquatic sanctuary would be to allow marine species to flourish by giving them some breathing room, if you will, to go forth and multiply for at least five years. Local shoreline fishermen, spearheaded by councilmember and most recent past mayor Kelly Boyd, opposed the idea. Lines have been cast, sides have been drawn, but the catch has yet to be counted.
Another first or at least something that hasn’t happened here for decades was a mysterious murder, shrouded in robbery and internet exchanges, of a well-known local who worked for years as the Hotel Laguna’s catering manager.
And, lastly, though omitted from the list below, is the phenomenon of trolley-hopping, taking its place as a precocious pastime for bored teenagers to hook up and party while riding the festival shuttles inebriated. No fear here for getting pulled over for drunk driving, if they were even of age to drive, much less drink. It seemed a natural extension of the use of a local commodity, especially a free one.
Here’s the top news stories of the year as the Indy sees it:
1. Give ‘Em Shelter: Jim Keegan, 67, a gentle six-plus-footer, said kindness propelled him into a leading role in the homeless rights lawsuit filed in federal court against the city by the American Civil Liberties Union. The suit pressured the city into modifying ordinances the lawsuit cited as illegally making homelessness a crime and to establish a 50-person overnight shelter in Laguna Canyon. The shelter effectively allowed the city to again enforce laws that prohibit camping and sleeping in public places.
2. New name, less game: Adventist Health sold the 50-year-old South Coast Medical Center in South Laguna to St. Joseph Health Systems and Mission Hospital, effective July 1. In February, a deal was struck for the 208-bed hospital, now known as Mission Hospital Laguna Beach, for $37.5 million, which was $21.3 million less than the hospital’s accumulated debt.
3. Marine Life Respite: The City Council endorsed the designation of Laguna’s seven miles of coastline as a marine reserve in June, stirring a tsunami of protest from a town with a long history of lobster-harvesting and spear-fishing. Although five proposals are under consideration by the state Department of Fish and Game, which has final say under the Marine Life Protection Act, the one most favored would close most of Laguna Beach’s coastline to fishing of any kind for the interim period.
4. Murder of Hotel Laguna Manager: The body of Damon Nicholson, the long-time catering manager for Hotel Laguna, was discovered after being bludgeoned to death in his North Laguna duplex on Friday, Oct. 23. Nicholson’s death was the first homicide in Laguna Beach since the double shooting deaths of a married couple at the Montage resort in 2007.
5. Economic Downturn: The nation’s economic woes instigated local discussions among Laguna merchants and city officials about the impact of retail vacancies and high rents on the town’s fiscal vitality. Empty storefronts brought Laguna to ghost-town-like status on some blocks. Merchants reported a steep drop in sales since the stock-market shocks of October 2008. In 2008-09, actual sales tax receipts totaled $2.84 million, a 17 percent decline compared to the previous year.
Bed-tax revenues comprise the city’s second-highest source of revenue, exceeding sales tax revenues, and is also forecast to decline. Revenue from the city’s top 20 properties through October has dropped to $59 million, down 22 percent compared to a year ago, according to a Smith Travel Research trend report.
6. The Big Swellhuna: The largest, most powerful southern hemisphere swell in recent history hammered California’s coastline in July, pounding Laguna Beach with waves up to 15 feet high, drawing huge crowds and taxing lifeguards to their physical limits. The Brooks Street surf contest, in its 48th year, went off with spectators packing the newly built staircase as surfers had to pull out of the wave before they hit the retaining wall; no sand was left due to the high surf.
7. Diamonds at Gunpoint: A gunman posing as a fiancé interested in purchasing an engagement ring stole $50,000 in diamond rings on Feb. 6 from John’s Jewelry and Gems, 305 Forest Ave. The bandit confronted an employee who had been helping him all week and took several of his top picks and ran. Leslie Giovanni Church, 34, was arrested the following month in Kauai, Hawaii, on a parole violation for leaving the state.
Two armed and hooded gunmen also robbed Baca’s Jewelry on Aug. 25 of $1.2 million in watches, jewelry and loose diamonds, but were spotted in mid-heist by observant citizens who provided police with a description of a getaway car. Several suspects are presently in custody.
8. Thalia Beach Mural Memorial Defaced: A memorial mural at Thalia Street beach honoring high school students who died tragically, including Max Caputo who was killed by a hit-and-run driver in 2006, turned from eulogy to eyesore.
While the memento altar topping the wall remained intact, the cherished mural disappeared under a wash of turquoise paint. Local activist and unconventional town elder Bruce Hopping admitted to painting it over, disappointed in the progress of the mural by street artist John Chaney. White graffiti stating “Do not paint on this wall — reserved for John Chaney,” accompanied by a skull and crossbones, added to the defacement.
The warning went unheeded. City officials painted the wall gray and declared a mural-painting contest for high school students to determine the new artist.
9. Hurry Up and Wait: Campers hoping for an overnight spot within walking distance of Laguna Beach’s Abalone Point had to put an indefinite hold on their campsite reservations. Contractors expecting to convert the former El Morro Village mobilehome park in Crystal Cove State Park into a campground stopped their engines due to the state’s fiscal crisis.
10. Going Green Sooner: Laguna trumped California’s mandatory green code by adopting the state’s environmentally geared building requirements, which take affect March 1, 10 months earlier than necessary.