Candidates Weigh in on Sustainable Issues


By Jennifer Erickson | LB Indy

Not surprisingly, Laguna Beach’s seven candidates running for City Council paid a lot of lip service to mobility issues and water conservation at a debate hosted by Transition Laguna last week.

Despite the candidates’ relative consensus on some basic desirable outcomes in those arenas, the forum did shed light on their different priorities and approaches to solutions.

Transition Laguna subscribes to a global movement to make cities more sustainable for an uncertain energy future, said Billy Fried, Transition Laguna’s fundraising director who co-hosted the event with board president Chris Prelitz.

For an opening volley, Fried asked the panel to describe what Laguna might look like after a four-year term if they are elected.

Incumbent Kelly Boyd put stock in a plan he’s already been investigating with advocates to establish an alternate bike route off Coast Highway, as well as a better bike route along Laguna Canyon Road and undergrounding of utilities there to make it a safer place.

Promising future accomplishments to echo those of her past, incumbent Toni Iseman touted her success in mobility issues, such as pushing for free summer trolleys and for traffic monitors at downtown intersections.

Jon Madison called for more sidewalks citywide and a pedestrian bridge at the Laguna College of Art and Design crossing where a student was fatally struck by a vehicle earlier this year. He also proposed transitioning to electric trolleys. Though the veracity of his resume came under fire last week, the debate’s organizers stuck to their topic, issuing the same questions to all candidates, and did not single him out to address the issue.

Michele Hall set better water conservation as a goal, as well as getting people used to choosing public transport, walking and biking over their cars.

Paul Merritt proposed broadening Laguna’s recycling efforts, including grey water recycling and recycling receptacles for beach goers. He also suggested operating the trolleys on natural gas.

Robert Zur Schmiede aims to “reduce the polarization of our community” and make city government friendlier and more efficient. He also hopes to improve pedestrian and bike mobility and look at alternative energy solutions. And he proposed that the city become “an informed participant” in deliberations about the disposal of spent fuel at the closed San Onofre nuclear power plant.

“If I’m elected, probably the Orange County Sheriff’s Department will be patrolling the city of Laguna Beach,” said Eli Grossman, whose campaign centers on his belief that current city officials lack moral character and integrity. He added that he favors solar energy and electric cars and echoed Hall’s concern for the state’s severe drought.

Asked whether Laguna is responding adequately to the drought, beyond the obvious need to keep conserving, Boyd and Zur Schmiede hoped for success with the desalination project in Dana Point. And Zur Schmiede and Iseman both supported better infrastructure for using recycled water.

Hall said households need to lead the charge and instill water-wise habits in their children. Madison favored eliminating grass from the Laguna Canyon Road median and planting more shade trees (so long as they don’t block views). Grossman urged better enforcement of existing laws. “It’s not wrong to call people out” for wasteful practices, he said.

The candidates all looked favorably on urban farming, with Boyd reminiscing about his grandfather’s produce and Madison talking about his current yield from pots in his yard. Hall saw this as another opportunity to instill sustainability values in children. She also proposed seeking lots that might be donated or community owned for community gardens and exploring the possibility of tax breaks for people donating land for gardens.

Zur Schmiede agreed, as long as would-be keepers of bees, goats and chickens have taken neighboring properties into consideration. And he suggested evaluating city policies to address any barriers to farming that might be tweaked.

A broad question seeking views on traffic congestion, the potential widening of Laguna Canyon Road and alternate transportation, drew a very specific answer from Grossman. He proposed diagonal crosswalks along Coast Highway south of Broadway Street and the merging of a southbound Coast Highway lane to create an extra northbound lane.

Zur Schmiede would like to identify the exact sources of the congestion, whether from school personnel, construction workers or toll avoiders.

Iseman repeated her mantra of diverting drivers before they enter town, urging double-decking or belowground parking at the city’s ACT V lot in Laguna Canyon. She also advocated two outbound lanes on Laguna Canyon Road “to drain the town” of congestion.

Instead of physically altering Laguna Canyon Road, Merritt suggested using cones to reconfigure its lanes based on changing traffic flows.

“Public transport works when it’s available and convenient,” said Hall, who would like a solution for residents of hillside neighborhoods who lack trolley access. She also favored peripheral lots linked to public transport and mechanical lifts at ACT V.

“We can build 35 parking lots and that still won’t solve the problem,” said Madison, who advocated for a canyon parking structure and daily trolley service through late evening to cater to late-shift workers who currently have to park in town.

Running year-round trolleys for free is too costly, said Boyd, who would be in favor of offering the convenience for a fee. Cities such as Irvine and Mission Viejo should provide trams to Laguna for their residents, he proposed.

Asked about closing Forest Avenue to vehicles, only Merritt expressed unbridled enthusiasm. “It should have been done decades ago,” he said.

Iseman suggested a “business-friendly” compromise, perhaps allowing parking for merchants and creating pocket parks. And she highlighted the issue of where to direct the diverted traffic.

Hall cited studies that foot traffic veered to the middle of pedestrian promenades rather than near shops. She proposed closing the lower portions of Forest Avenue and Park Avenue on a trial basis.

Madison agreed with a trial closure, as long as merchants are compensated for the parking they would give up and ways to redirect traffic were fully fleshed out.

Zur Schmiede supported a partial closure, but proposed waiting for input from the newly hired urban planner, MIG, since it was in their purview.

Boyd objected to any permanent closure on Forest Avenue. “To me it doesn’t make sense,” to remove that parking, he said, though he’s not averse to temporary closures.

Next up the candidates will field arts-related questions at a debate to be held Saturday, Sept. 20, beginning at 9 a.m. at Laguna Playhouse.

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