By Daniel Langhorne, Special to the Independent
The Laguna Beach City Council earmarked an additional $6.65 million on Tuesday to pay for wildfire protection projects outlined in a recent report published by a subcommittee led by Mayor Bob Whalen and Councilwoman Sue Kempf.
When added to the $14.8 million already funding projects, Laguna Beach will spend more than $21 million over the next two fiscal years on new initiatives to protect residents and visitors from wildfires.
About $2 million in Measure LL funds that were previously earmarked for undergrounding will be tapped. The City Council also redirected a previously approved $1 million to CalPERS for short-term fire mitigation needs. City leaders will also mull substantial borrowing from the city’s parking and street lighting funds.
“I’m very happy and excited that the report was accepted,” said Fire Chief Mike Garcia. “We’re being proactive and taking opportunities to make our community safer and that’s important.
Emergency personnel who responded to the Camp Fire in Paradise last year reported evacuation routes blocked by downed power lines and burning trees. Whalen, Garcia, City Manager John Pietig, Capt. Jeff Calvert and other city employees toured the town last year to learn from its devastation.
“The challenges they faced were not only eye-opening, but chilling,” Calvert said.
The City Council unanimously voted Tuesday to spend $1.2 million on a citywide outdoor warning system that uses loudspeakers to instruct the public to evacuate. The system is currently limited to the downtown area, Main Beach, and Heisler Park.
The expanded outdoor warning system could add up to 18 locations to broadcast instructions for the public to evacuate. Most of them will be mounted on fire stations, water district buildings, and other government facilities, Emergency Operations Coordinator Jordan Villwock said. Annual operating costs for such a system are estimated at about $50,000.
“I hope as we build this system that we never have to test it,” Garcia said. “What we’re trying to do is reduce the impacts and buy some time to get our people out and get out firefighters in.”
Councilwoman Toni Iseman encouraged city staffers to enlist Rep. Harley Rouda (D-Laguna Beach) and Assemblywoman Cottie Petrie-Norris (D-Laguna Beach) to help lobby for grant funding from the California Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. She added that wildfire protection in Laguna Beach is especially urgent because of the 6 million tourists who annually visit.
“We’re not doing this just for the citizens of Laguna Beach,” she said. “We’re doing this because this is a destination for so many people and they make us less safe and we need to make them safe.”
Villwock said hazard mitigation grants are awarded annually on a competitive basis based on the greatest need.
That’s why the city is focused on securing $6 million from Cal OES to help fund wildfire fuel breaks around the third of the city that remains unprotected by fire approaching from the Greenbelt, according to wildfire report.
“We have to be smart about when we apply and what we apply for first,” Villwock said.
Public comments on the wildfire report partly focused on what neighborhoods should receive funding first and who should pay to underground utility wires.
City staffers identified Bluebird Canyon Road, a section of Park Avenue between Wendt Terrace and St. Ann’s Drive, and Glenneyre Street as urgent priorities for undergrounding because they’re the only or primary evacuation routes for hundreds of homes. These projects would only underground wires on major right-of-ways, not on neighborhood streets.
Councilman Peter Blake criticized Southern California Edison for not bearing the entire cost of undergrounding its utility poles after hearing from SCE government relations manager James Peterson.
“I want to know what you’re doing to pay for more of this since these are your poles,” Blake said.
Peterson told Blake that the California Public Utilities Commission has a “Rule 20B” program that annually reinvests some of ratepayers’ dollars into undergrounding closely-packed lines or those on high-traffic streets. However, Assistant City Manager and Director of Public Works Shohreh Dupuis said that Laguna Beach only receives $90,000 per year from this program.
“For $90,000 we can underground half of a pole,” Dupuis said.
Without additional funding from the state or utility companies, residents are left with the option of creating assessment districts that could potentially cost neighborhoods millions of dollars. A majority of residents in a district must first vote to annually tax themselves annually in a ballot — the exact amount differs for each household based on the special benefit it receives from undergrounding utility lines.
Since she’s a Bluebird Canyon resident, Kempf recused herself from the discussion about undergrounding utility lines on Bluebird Canyon Road. John Loomis was among the Bluebird Canyon residents who thanked city staffers for their hard work on the wildfire mitigation and fire safety report and asked them to implement its suggestions.
Bonn Drive resident Gary Schwager said he and fellow Top of the World residents were disappointed that the city doesn’t have immediate plans to install a fuel modification zone between their homes and the Greenbelt.
“I think this is a terrific job, but I personally think that this project is actually two projects,” Schwager said. “The first project is short-term, which is how to make our community safe for this fire season. I’m not talking about long-term problems.”
Bob Elster, a retired commander with the U.S. Navy Medical Service Corps and vice chairman of the Emergency and Disaster Preparedness Committee, urged fellow residents not to get bogged down by fighting over which neighborhoods get funding.
“We are one city,” Elster said. “We need to realize we live or die with the entire city.”