Hindsight is 2020

Photo by Mitch Ridder

From COVID challenges to new development, here are some of the top stories from the past year.

It’s been a year like no other, one we will not mourn the passing of. The toll on human life and businesses has been unprecedented, the isolation and loss of jobs almost unbearable. Students have been schooled via distance learning; teachers and parents have had to redefine what education looks like. The community and City have stepped up to help those struggling to hang on to their livilihoods, beaches and outdoor dining have opened and closed and public activism against police brutality has never been more spirited. Through it all, city business has attempted to continue as usual, though life as we know it may never be the same.


Newsom Closes Orange County Beaches

City beaches, parks, athletic fields, and trailheads were closed due to the coronavirus. Photo by Daniel Langhorne

Laguna Beach residents were whipsawed in May when Gov. Gavin Newsom announced he would order the closure of Orange County beaches to prevent spread of the coronavirus.

Newsom announced a “pause” on allowing visitors at Orange County beaches to prevent a repeat of last weekend when the thousands of people gathered in Newport Beach, Huntington Beach, and to a lesser extent county-owned beaches in South Laguna.

“We’re going to do a hard close in that part of the state, in Orange County,” Newsom said. “Specific issues at some of those beaches have raised alarm bells.”

He started his comments on this topic saying, “we’re guided by health. We’re guided by your health and the health of others. Nobody is invincible to this.

Newsom added that it might be premature to determine the impact of beach crowds on the virus’ spread, considering it happened less than a week ago.

The governor’s county-specific order arrived three days after many community members celebrated the Laguna Beach City Council’s decision to reopen city beaches from 6 to 10 a.m from Monday to Friday. Mayor Pro Tem Steve Dicterow and Councilmember Peter Blake said Thursday morning they expect the city to comply with Newsom’s order.

“Good-hearted people looking at the same set of facts can come to different decisions,” Dicterow said. “This is a nationwide crisis and I think we all have to work together under the authorities that exist. I don’t think it makes sense to be divisive now.”

In a phone interview Thursday morning, Blake said he understand why Newsom took the action but said the order still deserves close scrutiny to prevent government overreach.

“It’s not detrimental to Laguna Beach to shut the beaches down but it would be disastrous if we kept the beaches open and the businesses closed,” Blake said.

Blake pointed out that Laguna Beach has already paid dearly from the stay-at-home order through a steep decline in sales tax revenue. The City Council also agreed to defer Laguna Beach hotels’ transient occupancy tax payments.

Paula Hornbuckle-Arnold, executive director of the Laguna Beach Chamber of Commerce, said she anticipated the governor’s order will have no additional impact on local businesses because city beaches are already closed.

Regardless of the seemingly day-to-day changes in governance, Horbucke-Arnold summed up the feeling of Laguna Beach’s business climate as “devastating.”

“I have some who have hope that they will survive,” she said. “I have others who aren’t sure they’re going to get through the next month.”


Mission Hospital Diesel Spill Closes Totuava Beach

A work crew employed by Mission Hospital-contracted Ancon uses an excavator to remove polluted sand May 28 form Totuava Beach. Photo courtesy of State Water Resources Board

A 2,100-gallon diesel spill at Mission Hospital in May prompted a temporary closure of a section at Totuava Beach and a months-long clean-up effort.

As part of its normal operations, Mission Hospital regularly checks that its emergency electricity generator correctly functions. During these tests, the generator’s fuel tank is depleted and needs to be refilled by a second storage tank on site. That system failed at some point on May 7 spilling diesel into the storm drain that empties at Totuava Beach.

A hospital security guard first noticed the spill at the hospital during a routine patrol around 3:30 a.m. Laguna Beach emergency dispatch received a call for assistance around 4 a.m., prompting a response by Laguna Beach firefighters and lifeguards. The U.S. Coast Guard, California Department of Fish & Wildlife, and other agencies also assisted with the spill response.

As of July 17, Mission Hospital reported the environment at and around Totuava Beach had been returned to the same condition as existed prior to the release, according to an Aug. 17 letter sent to California Coastal Commission.

There is no indication that the red dye diesel reached the Pacific Ocean, as confirmed by the U.S. Coast Guard, according to the Mission Hospital letter.

“There are no known or anticipated human health effects or animals impacted by the release, and there is no remaining hazard to human health and safety or the environment as a result of this release state oversight of the cleanup,” the letter states.

State water officials determined that the project is completed and concurred with the Mission Hospital-sponsored report that no further action is required at this time.

“However, if additional information indicates that further investigation and/or remedial action(s) are required, the San Diego Water Board will respond appropriately,” Craig Carlisle, a senior engineering geologist wrote in an Dec. 23 email to the Independent.


Festival of Arts Cancels Pageant of the Masters and Fine Arts Show

A Pageant of the Masters production employee directs actors during the 2018 Pageant of the Masters. Courtesy of the Festival of the Arts

The Festival of Arts announced May 11 that it has canceled the 2020 Fine Art Show and Pageant of the Masters in light of the state’s phased reopening plan.

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s announcement last week that the ban on mass gatherings would be extended for many weeks made it “simply not plausible” for pageant organizers to continue planning.

“This decision was not taken lightly,” Festival of the Arts President David Perry said in a prepared statement. “We had been hopeful and tried our best to open our doors this summer. We were determined to do everything possible to move ahead, but the insurmountable obstacles of this pandemic prohibited us from getting back into our offices and workshops to prepare for our traditional summer events.”

The Festival of Arts will now redirect its focus to planning for the future programs, including the 2021 Fine Art Show and Pageant of the Master, Perry said.

“As we move ahead, we will keep in touch and look forward to engaging with you throughout the summer,” Perry said. “We promise to continue to be here for you, our Pageant and Festival of Arts community… just as you have always been here for us.”

The Festival of Arts’ decision to cancel its summer season impacts its 31 full-time employees, three part-time year, and roughly about 400 seasonal employees. Organizers planned to exhibit pieces by 132 artists at this summer’s fine arts show.

This is the first time the pageant, which dates back to 1932, has been canceled since a break during World War II.


LBHS Seniors Say Goodbye With Surfside Cap Toss

Members of the Laguna Beach High School Class of 2020 throw their caps in the air June 10 at Shaw’s Cove. Photo courtesy of Michelle Roberts

 More than 120 members of Laguna Beach High School’s Class of 2020 gathered June 10 at Shaw’s Cove to collectively throw their graduation caps in the air.

The gathering was a cathartic event for graduating seniors who have been schooled online since March and missed out on many of the traditional celebrations of their final semester. It was also a rebellion against school district leaders who canceled the usual commencement ceremony scheduled for Thursday due to coronavirus fears.

Deputy Superintendent Leisa Winston wrote in an email that Laguna Beach Unified School District administrators were not aware of the event until the photos were posted on social media.

“The pictures recently posted on social media depicting a mass gathering of students in their caps and gowns was not a District-sponsored event, and neither the school district nor Laguna Beach High School had any influence on the activity,” Winston wrote.

She noted that celebrations for our seniors including, but not limited to, a drive-thru and virtual graduation ceremony, personalized signs for each student, and photographs of each graduate.

A video of the gathering shows an onlooker counting down from three to signal graduates wearing red and white gowns to throw their caps in the air. As the graduating seniors pick their caps off the sand, a woman shouts “wooo, you guys did it!”

City Manager John Pietig said at Tuesday’s city council meeting that Laguna Beach High School would operate its drive-thru ceremonies from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m on Thursday. Parents and students were slated to drive from Thurston Middle School to the High School and through a portion of Guyer Field. Laguna Beach police provided traffic control for the event.


Laguna Teachers Talk About Racism Amid Civil Unrest

Like thousands of educators across the country, Laguna Beach High School teachers find themselves trying to help their students process the killing of George Floyd and the following civil unrest.

Social studies teachers Kristin Cowles and Mark Alvarez admit their jobs are complicated by the fact students are still distance learning from home because of the coronavirus and set to start summer break on June 11.

As Laguna Beach High’s facilitator for No Place For Hate, a national campaign by the Anti-Defamation League to eradicate racial bias and bullying from schools, Cowles says its critically important for teachers to talk with students about the history of racism in the United States.

Laguna Beach has seen a series of small peaceful protests at Main Beach since Saturday. So far, Laguna Beach residents have not experienced a curfew like Anaheim, Costa Mesa, and Huntington Beach.

Cowles had already scheduled a deep dive on the civil rights movement with her AP U.S. History class before the recent protests and looting. Last week, they discussed Jim Crow segregation and Plessy v. Ferguson, a U.S. Supreme Court decision that upheld racial segregation of public facilities. In this week’s Zoom session, they discussed the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

“The timing of this topic gives the students and me an opportunity to place the murder of Mr. George Floyd and the uprisings in a historical context,” Cowles said.

On Sunday night, Cowles sent out information to her colleagues about personal action and how to talk about racism with their students. Because many of Laguna Beach High teachers are also parents of young children, she also included resources for talking to young children.

In a voluntary Zoom meeting with students on Tuesday night, Cowles asked students to share their thoughts on the past week’s events.

“I felt that students needed and wanted a safe place to discuss, question, and mourn,” she said.

Alvarez said he held virtual office hours for his Economics and AP Government & Politics classes on Tuesday and the protests briefly came up in conversation.

“What’s happening around the country makes for a teachable moment,” Alvarez wrote in an email. “This is my last week with the seniors and there will be so much left unsaid.”

Carolen Sadler’s World History classes is ending the school year by focusing on the issue of human rights around the world. Students are creating a superhero comic strip that spotlights unjust abuses in various regions around the world, including the U.S.

“Many students have chosen to address the recent racist incidents here, including attacks against Jews,” Sadler wrote in an email. “Not only are their superheroes addressing short term remedies, but exploring long term changes that need to be made socially, politically, etc.”

In her U.S. course this week, Sadler has dedicated more time to the Post-Civil War Reconstruction era as a precursor to the country’s current state of race relations.”Undoubtedly, next year holds more opportunity to address this issue and I hope to take full advantage of it,” Sadler said.


Black Lives Matter protest earns honks and cheers at Main Beach Park

A protestor flashes the peace sign during a protest at Main Beach Park on June 5.

About 250 people peacefully protested June 5 in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, drawing by the far the largest crowd at Main Beach Park within the last six days.

Protestors chanted “no justice, no peace” as a steady stream of motorists honked in approval. Motorists raised their fists or flashed the peace sign as they drove by the protest. Organizers shouted into bullhorns, “say his name” and the crowd replied “George Floyd.” They offered the same memorial to Breonna Taylor, a black woman fatally shot in her apartment by Louisville police officers.

Caspian Brock, 23, of Laguna Beach was among a group of young people who helped coordinate the protest on social media,

“I think it’s important that Laguna Beach takes a stand given that this is a largely white and affluent town,” Brock said. “We are not immune from the system of racism. And if people continue to hide from that we’ll be a huge part of the problem.”

Laguna Beach Police Chief Laura Farinella and Capt. Jeff Calvert showed up at the protest to observe how it was progressing. Farinella walked over and encouraged the protest organizers to call police if someone started harassing them.

“We want to thank everyone for peacefully demonstrating and it not turning to violence,” Farinella told the Independent. “In speaking with the people at this protest today, if anyone becomes violent or not wearing a mask they ask them to leave, so we appreciate that.”

Farinella added that the Laguna Beach Police Department stand in partnership with protestors against what happened to Floyd.

Laguna Beach resident Kristy Melita raised a sign emblazoned with “Equality for All” on one side and “November 3, 2020 Vote” on the other.

“When we did the Women’s marches, Black Lives Matter turned out for us and supported our cause,” she said. “I promised them that I would stand up for them. It’s important for towns like ours to stand up.”


Promenade on Forest Opens to Draw Downtown Customers

Tables, chairs, and umbrellas were installed on dining decks at the Promenade on Forest Avenue earlier this year. Photo by Daniel Langhorne

Laguna Beach officially opened the Promenade on Forest Avenue June 15 to the public, offering a much-needed lifeline to downtown businesses during the public health and economic crises.

Council members, city employees, and residents meandered down the Promenade. Moulin owner Laurent Vrignaud laid out trays of free croissants on the dining deck installed in front of his cafe.

“This thing is a long time coming,” Vrignaud said. “There’s a lot of for-lease signs downtown. You can’t have a downtown without little cafes, restaurants and shops.”

He likened the Promenade to popular pedestrian malls in Paris, Rome, and Moscow. He expects that part of the Promenade’s draw will be as a space for visitors to people watch.

“This weekend there was no promenade and the place was packed,” Vrignaud said. “Next weekend, this place will be rocking and rolling no doubt.”

After Monday’s ribbon coffee, several groups of people sipped coffee at city-owned tables placed on the dining deck in front of Moulin. A hand sanitizing station emblazoned with the city seal was also installed several steps away.

One of the centerpieces of the Promenade, were four cube-shaped bollards encased in colorful tile mosaics. These artistic traffic devices were designed and fabricated in just eight days to block vehicles from turning onto Forest Avenue.

“People are saying, ‘it’s very Laguna’ and I agree,” bollard co-creator Marlo Bartels said in a phone interview.

The bollards were created by Bartels, Jesse Bartels, Steve Gaskey, and Joey Sammut. Marlo Bartels is well-known in Laguna Beach for his public art, including the Canyon Chess and Checkers table and benches installed in 1981 across the street at Main Beach Park.

Laguna Niguel resident Joey Sammut said the team put in 12-hour workdays on the bollards to complete them by the deadline. He was pleased to see the city trying something to create a place where people can meet downtown.

“I think it’s a step in the right direction,” Sammut said. “I lived in Laguna Beach for five years . The way it was designed before, it wasn’t as efficient as it could have been. I think it will allow people who are out and about a place to chill out.”

The City Council awarded a $145,000 contract to Choura Events on May 26 for materials, labor, furniture rental, and installation of the Promenade’s elements. Landscape design firm SWA  Group received a contract for up to $25,000 for the concept’s development and design.


Laguna COVID Relief Fund Raises Over $400,000 From Local Donations

The three-month campaign for the Laguna COVID-19 Relief Fund, launched by a group of business owners and community volunteers focused on creating instant financial relief for Laguna Beach residents, distributed its final grants in late July, a total of over $400,000 that was given to locals in need.

Opened in late April 24 in collaboration with the Boys & Girls Club of Laguna Beach and the Laguna Beach Community Foundation, the fund, which received 1,000 applications, made emergency assistance mini-grants in the form of VISA gift cards of up to $1,000 available to 862 individuals for rent, food, medical bills and other basic needs. It emphasized those in the restaurant, hospitality, retail, arts and personal services industries.

According to Bob Mister, the fund co-chair and Laguna Beach resident, the fund provided aid to 120 hotel workers, 570 restaurant workers, 63 artists and 28 day laborers, with the remaining 66 grants going to small business owners, independent contractors, dog walkers and nail and hair salon employees.

“We would like to thank everyone who contributed and worked to make this project a success,” said Mister. “While we realize that this small amount of money could not sustain those affected by job loss for long, we got such a positive response from those receiving grants from our Laguna community helping Laguna workers, that it made the effort worthwhile. Special thanks to The Boys & Girls Club of Laguna Beach, which took in most of the applications and gave out the grants to the recipients and once again, thanks to all who gave of their time and money to help those in need.”


Council OKs Coast Inn Remodel and Rooftop Deck

Laguna Beach-based Dornin Investment Group is looking to breathe new life into Coast Inn, the former home of the Boom Boom Room.

The Laguna Beach City Council approved the long-awaited Coast Inn renovation project on July 28, following a marathon session whose main sticking point was the merits of a new rooftop deck for the historic property.

The council ultimately approved the effort on a 4-1 vote, with Councilwoman Toni Iseman dissenting on the effort to revive the historic 24-room property at 1401 S. Coast Hwy.

A planned rooftop deck was pared down to roughly 2,500 square feet, smaller than the 3,707 square feet Coast Inn owner Chris Dornin and architect Marshall Innins had most recently wanted. It will include a bar, pool and spa, but will only be accessible to hotel guests.

The Coast Inn dates to 1927 and once housed the Boom Boom Room, a nightclub that catered to the gay community before closing in 2007. The club’s space is slated to become a new location of the Bear Flag Fish Co. chain.

One of the benefits of remodeling a historic property—built without onsite parking—is that the developer isn’t required to provide onsite parking. Neighbors have argued that it was unfair for city officials to allow Dornin to intensify the hotel’s use with a pool deck without adding any parking.


Downtown Specific Plan Elements Move Forward

Laguna Beach officially adopted looser permitting and parking rules for downtown businesses in July, capping a years-long process by city officials to create a more business-friendly environment.

The Laguna Beach City Council unanimously voted to approve the update of the Downtown Specific Plan, an evolving document that has governed development in Downtown Laguna for more than 30 years. The council majority agreed to limit the requirement to apply for a conditional use permit to new bars, restaurants, live entertainment venues, and souvenir shops. All other commercial uses would be permitted-by-right, avoiding time-intensive, costly review by city staffers and the Planning Commission.

Councilmembers also slashed requirements for on-site parking, which has long been a barrier for new businesses to move into buildings that were developed without designated parking spaces.

The Downtown Specific Plan’s updated ordinances still need to be approved by the California Coastal Commission for certification as required by the Coastal Act. The Coastal Commission’s staff has told Laguna Beach that they will likely hear these items in early to mid-2020.


County Studies Coastal Access After Table Rock Beach Fatalities

Orange County lifeguards swim amid rough surf during the search for a missing swimmer in late August at Table Rock Beach. Courtesy of John Thomas

 OC Parks is reviewing county documents that show a gate should have been installed at the Table Rock Coastal Access stairway when it was constructed more than 30 years ago.

The study was requested by Supervisor Lisa Bartlett in the wake of two swimmers’ deaths at Table Rock Beach in August.

“Supervisor Bartlett has asked OC Parks to assess the current situation and relevant historic documents pertaining to the access gate at Table Rock Beach and make a determination on how best to proceed forward,” James Dinwiddie, deputy chief of staff for Bartlett’s office, wrote in an email.

In 1986, The Orange County Planning Commission approved a resolution requiring county staff to install a gate at the Table Rock Beach access and keep it locked daily from sunset until 8 a.m. as a condition for building the stairway. At that time, county officials viewed the public beach access stairway as a cure to neighbor complaints that people trespass on private property, often through hazardous conditions, to reach the sand.

Dinwiddie noted that if OC Parks recommends installing the gate, county staff would be required to seek approval from the Board of Supervisors and the California Coastal Commission.

The Thousand Steps Beach stairway already has a gate that is locked nightly. Meanwhile, Laguna Beach city-owned beaches stay open until 1 a.m.

Table Rock’s public access has earned scrutiny by some residents, especially those living on adjacent bluffs, because of a string of fatalities involving swimmers in 2020.


COVID Closes LBUSD Schools to In-Person Learning

Top of the World Elementary students wait to have their temperature read on Oct. 5. Photo by Daniel Langhorne

When the Laguna Beach Unified School District announced March 13 that it would close its schools over COVID-19 concerns—the initial plan was for a two-week closure.

The district subsequently rolled out a months-long distance learning program with students learning through virtual classrooms broadcast on iPads and laptops. The untraditional teaching methods raised concerns among many parents concerned about the health and social-emotional impacts of having children stare at screens for long periods of time.

After significant lobbying from parents, the district reopened El Morro and Top of the World elementary schools to students on Oct. 5.

The school board followed a recommendation from the Laguna Beach Unified Faculty Association to reopen Thurston Middle and Laguna Beach High School on Nov. 23, following the end of the first trimester. However, a surging number of COVID-19 cases across the state prompted Gov. Gavin Newsom to block to reopening of schools that hadn’t already opened.

As of November, the Laguna Beach Unified School District had 2,644 students enrolled for the 2020-21 school year.


Hospitality, Personal Care Industries Struggle Amid COVID surges

Tables, chairs, and umbrellas were installed on dining decks at the Promenade on Forest Avenue earlier this year. Photo by Daniel Langhorne

Laguna Beach hair salons, restaurants, bars, nail manicurists, and gyms have endured a roller coaster of uncertainty since the first statewide stay-at-home order for COVID-19 was issued in March.

Dozens of Laguna Beach businesses received low-interest loans from the Paycheck Protection Program funded by the CARES Act to save jobs threatened by the coronavirus. By the fall many businesses reported they have spent these federally-backed dollars. In late December, they were awaiting access to a second relief package approved by Congress just before the Christmas holiday.

The Promenade at Forest Avenue, a street closure of Forest Avenue between Coast Highway and Glenneyre Street, was installed in June to add outdoor dining capacity for downtown restaurants. Restaurants throughout the city were also allowed to convert parking spaces into temporary dining parklets.

But a stay-at-home order issued Dec. 6. by Gov. Gavin Newsom banned outdoor dining as the number of patients critically ill with COVID-19 spiked in Southern California. City staffers removed tables, chairs, and umbrellas from dining and retail display decks at the Promenade on Forest Avenue. Likewise, city leaders instructed restaurant operators to pull tables and chairs from outdoor dining parklets citywide.

The Laguna Beach City Council approved a $1.1 million relief package on Tuesday for small businesses and nonprofits to help alleviate the financial hardship created by the regional stay-at-home order.

Starting Dec. 23, Laguna Beach restaurant and bar operators can apply for a single $5,000 grant per establishment. Similarly, personal care businesses like hair salons and gyms, which have endured a hard shutdown, could each apply for a $3,000 grant. Retailers that have seen the occupancy limited to 20% of maximum capacity can apply for $2,000 grants.


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