Ballot initiative would let Laguna Beach voters decide fate of some developments

The 118-room Museum Hotel proposed by the Laguna Beach Company for a block south of Coast Highway  between Cliff Drive and Jasmine Street is an example of a project that voters could decide on if a new ballot initiative is passed. Rendering courtesy of Laguna Creative Ventures.

After a year-long delay due to COVID-19, a local political action committee recently submitted a ballot initiative that would afford Laguna Beach voters the right to approve or deny certain developments within the city limits.

A previous effort by Laguna Residents First to collect signatures was stalled last Spring due to the pandemic. City Clerk Ann Marie McKay confirmed receiving the ballot initiative on July 14.

“Laguna’s a unique town in an unusual location and we need to preserve its value for residents, merchants and visitors alike,” Merrill Anderson, a committee spokesperson, said in a press release. “Overdevelopment and gridlock are valid concerns, and residents should have the right to vote on projects that could affect their property values as well as their quality of life.”

Voter approval would be required for major developments that combine lots totaling more than 7,500 square feet, creates at least 200 additional average daily vehicle trips, exceeds 30-feet in height, or contain more than 22,000 square in floor area. The initiative’s scope is also limited to proposed major developments within 750 feet of Coast Highway or Laguna Canyon Road.

Single-family home remodels and multi-family projects of nine or fewer residential units are explicitly excluded from the initiative and wouldn’t be subjected to such votes. Denser housing projects of exclusively low-income to extremely low-income housing residential units would also be exempted.

Laguna Beach wouldn’t be the first Orange County city to apply breaks on real estate development. Costa Mesa, Newport Beach and Dana Point have passed similar so-called “Greenlight” initiatives. In 2000, Newport Beach voters approved a right-to-vote initiative to block new high-rise towers.

Nancy Skinner, a Newport Beach activist who supported Greenlight, is thrilled to see Laguna Beach residents following in the footsteps of her hometown.

“I live the idea of leveling the playing field in as many cities in Orange County as possible,” she said. “We’re trying to limit runaway development we’re seeing in these other areas.”

A hard lesson learned from Newport Beach’s voter initiative is that projects proposing the conversion of office buildings into residential units weren’t included in the initiative and therefore can’t be turned down by voters, said Skinner, who serves as an advisory board member for Laguna Residents First.

The principals behind Laguna Residents First are fixtures in the City Council Chambers who often argue against intense development. Treasurer Gene Felder is president of the Top of the World Neighborhood Association and also serves as treasurer for the Laguna Canyon Conservancy. Assistant Treasurer Merrill Anderson is also vice president of Village Laguna. They stepped into their respective roles in May, according to public records.

Gene Felder of Laguna Beach is the current treasurer of Laguna Residents First PAC. Courtesy of Gene Felder
Michael Morris is the immediate past treasurer of Laguna Residents First. Courtesy of Michael Morris

Before then, Laguna Beach resident Michael Morris served as treasurer. Morris is a frequent commenter at city council meetings, advocating for city leaders to pursue more fiscally conservative alternatives to city staffers’ budget proposals.

“After two years, I thought it was important to be involved in other aspects of the initiative,” Morris said, specifically he’s helping train volunteers.

Councilmember George Weiss co-founded the committee two years ago but stepped down last year after deciding to run for City Council.

“I just didn’t want there to be confusion between running for city office and that initiative,” Weiss said. “They were campaigning at the time until COVID-19.”

Councilmember George Weiss is a co-founder of Laguna Residents First. Although he still volunteers for the PAC, he stepped down from an assistant treasurer position last year. Courtesy of George Weiss

Among the opponents of the ballot initiative are the founders of Laguna Forward, formerly known as Liberate Laguna PAC, who say it goes too far and will have unintended consequences.

“Laguna Forward opposes the proposed ballot measure that would force most new projects to go through an expensive and lengthy voter approval process,” the committee said in a statement. “While the ballot measure’s supporters claim this is a voter empowerment initiative, it will in fact have a chilling effect on nearly all new investment in our community, an outcome we can ill afford as we look to recover from the economic impacts of the pandemic.”

Laguna Forward’s officers are Michael Ray, Cindy Shopoff, and Sam Goldstein. The three long-time Laguna Beach residents work in the real estate investment and development industries.

Before volunteers can start collecting signatures, the initiative has to clear a few procedural hurdles. The City Attorney’s Office has to craft a legal description of the initiative. Then a notice will be advertised in an adjudicated newspaper of record before a 14-day waiting period to collect any protests of the legal description.

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  1. Excellent! Talk about the fastest way to KILL THE CITY! Finally, they’ve come up with it. The best case against democracy is a five minute conversation with a Laguna voter.

  2. I’d like to know exactly what development prompted this idea? The last major one was the Senior Center. Before that: The Montage. We’re not exactly Dubai. This is right up there with recalls as the dumbest idea in local government. What a waste of time, money and oxygen. We elect officials for a reason: to represent us. We have height limits and commercial zones and parking requirements and any number of obstacles that prevent out of control development. Let the government do their job!

  3. Daniel, thanks for a fair description of the initiative, the people who are promoting it and those who are opposed. As always, we rely in the Indy to be a fair reporter of local political, social, commercial and community events.


  4. Mr. Fried do you believe that Liberate Laguna spent probably upwards of $250,000 mostly for council seats in the last two elections so that the council and the rest of the city government could “do their jobs” And have you been following Mr. Honarkar’s illegal actions with respect to the Hotel Laguna, his allegedly illegal actions with money transfers from the court appointed receiver’s accounts and now the latest latest lawsuit against him over the purchase of the Newport Beach property? He and his LL friends were extolling what wonders and the “gift to the city” (Mo’s own words) that LB would be given. Then we were shown a concept drawing for the Museum Hotel which by the way, looked eerily similar to a Motel 8 in, I believe, Alexandria Texas. The old saying “ fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me” is definitely apropos here. We definitely need the LRF ballot initiative so that projects that affect the residents, who after all pay the biggest amount of taxes to the city budget have a voice. If the project going before the voters is well designed and mitigates those areas that affect our quality of life it should be approved. And the project may still be approved with variances if the voters, mostly residents, believe the benefits outweigh its negative impacts. Yes there may be some negotiation taking into account the concerns of the citizens but that is exactly what the LRF initiative is designed to promote i.e. give the residents a voice. Costa Mesa, Newport Beach and now even Dana Point all have passed similar initiatives unfortunately in DanaPoint’s case it was a bit too late. I’m sure the developers and their business associates were crying the sky is falling when their initiatives were being passed and as far as I can tell the sky did not fall. So in the words of Mr. Dubin in his Letter to the Editor a few months ago giving advice to Village Laguna the “Stop the Squeal”. I am writing this as an individual and not on behalf of any organization of which I may be a member, unlike Mr. Dubin who signed his name and his position as planning commissioner in his tirade against Village Laguna.

  5. Mr. Fried, I agree with your statement, “We elect officials for a reason: to represent us” and I also agree with the quote you included below, “We must always take sides…” in your letter to the Indy in 2019 acknowledging that Peter Blake turned out to be a mistake which he goes you some credit for. Thanks for that. We all make mistakes. Kudos too you for admitting that you blew it.

    But the fact is, you aren’t even a voter in our town and your need to inject yourself into our local politics by promoting your old partying buddy cost us years of community turmoil, political embarrassment and a pro-development trend that has caused major resident concern and pushback. And now, you have the nerve to insult a group of respected LB residents/actionists/voters as they attempt to recover their ability to have a say in the future of their community because they can no longer trust that their pro-development funded/ supported elected officials are representing them equally? Not to mention the increasing concerns over the blatant infiltration of our city government staff and boards and commission decision makers. IMO, your column and opinions seem self-serving and shouldn’t matter to any VOTER in our town. Maybe stick to writing about e-bikes and traveling insights? Because this statement, “We have height limits and commercial zones and parking requirements and any number of obstacles that prevent out of control development”, begs the question…how much do you actually know about political influence and city government?

    Finally, the responses and exchanges between you and Peter Blake to your “UT-OH make community amends” letter (below) are priceless. They can be found on my LBCHAT blog along with a slew of other Blake Bloopers and local exchanges. Enjoy.

    Three More Years of This? (November 2019 Indy Column
    By Billy Fried

    We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. – Elie Wiesel

    It didn’t take me long to come out of retirement, because I could not sit idly by, week after week, and watch Councilman Peter Blake engage in such contemptible behavior. After all, he credited my radio interview as one of the reasons he was elected to City Council. Now I want to make amends to the community for the egregious mistake of giving him that platform.

    Peter positioned himself as a righteously indignant reformer. We were rooting for him, and hoping that the occasional displays of incivility during the campaign were just anomalies – theatrics to get elected. But none of us could have known that he would play the victim over and over again, raining bile on anyone who dared voice a different opinion. He seems to see every criticism as a personal attack that somehow must be vindicated with cruel insults and unbridled smears.
    Let’s start with the police car flag graphic debacle, which he escalated to the national stage with his pandering on Fox News. Anyone who knows the “minimalist” Peter Blake knows that the over-the-top flag graphic is anathema to his aesthetic. But it gave him an opportunity to take down people who had challenged him in the past, and to smear our entire town, telling Fox viewers it was all because “Laguna is the most liberal town in the most liberal state.” Yeah, we’re just like Berkeley, Oakland and San Francisco. Thanks for bating the left-haters, who came out in droves to besmirch our town and threaten residents who spoke against the graphic.

    When I informed Peter that I was having Carrie Woodburn on my radio show to share her experience of being victimized by such rhetoric, he listened in, and then texted me, “This is complete f***ing bulls**t. F*** both of you!” I allowed him to call in, and he bombed the show with apoplectic profanities. I had to cut him off. He made it clear that Carrie wasn’t the victim. He was. It must be hard going through life with such a boulder on your shoulder.

    But this pales compared to Peter’s regular attacks on fellow Councilmember Toni Iseman’s mental fitness, or wardrobe and face shaming members of the public who show up week after week to make their voices heard. They don’t attack back, because they know that criticizing others is just crying over unmet needs.

    But there he is, trolling the pages of social media and this paper, week after bloody week, calling anyone who disagrees with him “radical extremists” of the left or right, as if members of Village Laguna or the Republican Taxpayers Association are flame-throwing anarchists. And that he is taking the town back from the dreaded hippies or activists, as if there’s something wrong with that. I know public service is brand new to Blake, but hippies and activists got us out of Vietnam, and got equal rights for blacks, gays and women.
    But the most surreal display came at the Council meeting when a full agenda item was dedicated to reigning in Peter’s behavior. There he sat for an hour and a half, listening to the public and his four colleagues recount episode after episode of vile attacks and reprehensible behavior.
    He was advised by each councilperson before the meeting to be quiet and listen, and he almost made it, but at the last second, instead of showing one iota of remorse, he went on the offensive, shouting “I take back nothing and stand by every word I said.” This was the tipping point for me that clearly revealed he is unfit for office.
    Here’s the thing, Peter. You can do whatever you want in the private sector. But there’s a reason they call it public service, and that you are called a public servant. It means that you can be criticized. In fact, I’ve challenged every single veteran councilperson on the dais over one decision or another, and never have they hit back with an attack of any kind. Because it comes with the job. But you are clearly incapable of the high moral and ethical grounds required of such a position.
    You continually say you are representing the silent majority. I don’t believe you are. You got 25 percent of the voting public, and many of them are now repulsed by your behavior. The ones who still support you, while well meaning I’m sure, are simply ignoring how civil society works and the damage you are doing.
    Why have I waited this long to speak up? I guess I was somehow hoping you would change. But I’ve now seen that asking you to get your impulses under control is futile.

    Even though I can no longer vote in this town, I can still use my voice to encourage everyone else to remove Peter Blake from office. We deserve so much better.
    Billy Fried hosts “Laguna Talks” on Thursday nights at 8 p.m. on KX93.5 and can be reached at [email protected].

  6. Agree with him or not, Billy Fried has as much right to an opinion on local matters as anyone else who has worked here for years and can’t afford to live here, a list that includes many of our artists, teachers, police, firefighters, and others. To claim otherwise is pure snobbery.

  7. Chris, I know for certain that the Liberate Laguna founders spent that money for one thing – individual property rights. And it worked. Show me the massive developments in Laguna from Shopoff, Ray and Goldstein? Nil. As for Honarker (who simply contributed money), you wasted a lot of ink on his personal travails that have zero to do with large scale development. There is simply no way he can alter the Hotel Laguna. As for the Museum Hotel, that monolith is DOA – thanks to a council that shut him down. Our elected officials reflecting our values. Try again.

    MJ, thank you for reprinting my column. I always appreciate the publicity. A couple things… so I am responsible for the pro development trend? I didn’t know I had that power, but for the life of me I wish I understood what that trend is that so many of you are ranting about? I saw George Weiss’s misinformation election campaign showing downtown Huntington Beach and telling voters it could happen here. What exact pro development agenda has been advanced in this town, except one wealthy resident who bought a lot of properties, mostly to restore? I have never hid my opposition to the Museum Hotel, nor have others that you continue to impugn as rapacious developers. It’s nonsense.

    As for my support for Peter Blake, I actually do still support much of his agenda. I just don’t support his methods. And I’m curious as to where you get this “my old party buddy”? Do you know something I don’t?

    As for your personal attacks on my rights to engage in the political discourse (and understanding of it), let me disclose a few things for you:

    1. I’ve lived in Laguna Beach since 1999. Sold a home in 2016 and rented adjacent until finding a home in Laguna I wanted to buy back into.

    2. I started a local business in 2003, employ many people, and still do to this day. We delight visitors and residents with our eco kayak tours and now “Back Roads Laguna eBike tours,” responsibly sharing (with no carbon emissions or noise) how amazing our town is. That makes me a double stakeholder in this town as a home and business owner.

    3. I’ve written over 200 columns about Laguna for the Coastline Pilot and Indy.

    4. I’ve interviewed well over 100 Lagunans for my radio show, “Laguna Talks”

    5. I founded the monthly full moon drum circle at Aliso Beach over 20 years ago, and it’s still going strong, and one of the best community happenings in Laguna.

    6. I am on the board of Transition Laguna, and we were responsible for getting the city to implement the wonderful and widely used official bike route, which has saved lives. As well as planting countless edible gardens around town, and educating our community on sustainability issues.

    7. I spent countless volunteer hours pitching the city – and then implementing – the successful trial Park Plaza street closure that led to Council voting unanimously to make it permanent. Until it was replaced by Forest Promenade – a trade I was happy to make.

    Yep, but I’m just “self-serving.” So, just curious MJ, what have you done for Laguna?

    Finally, here’s a news flash. The way government works is that whoever gets the most votes, wins. That you and your ilk can “no longer trust that their pro-development funded/ supported elected officials are representing them equally” is just the way democracy works. They won. You lost. Now get more candidates elected in 2022 who you support. But to subvert the elected process because you are sore losers with a monumental expense and task of public voting on every development is beyond stupid. It’s sour grapes. You are no longer the majority, and one thing Peter Blake did is get a lot of apathetic people involved in local politics. Council is no more likely to approve anything that needs variances than you are. Nobody supports big development. So let’s stop the pro-development canard and just go back to doing what you all do best: complaining.

  8. Well things will grind even further to a halt now. Way to much democracy just why are we paying planning staff if we are going to send stuff to voters who have no knowledge of architecture or community planing? However, they will certainly have lots of opinions.


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