City Council OKs buying South Laguna properties for public use, maybe a fire station

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A Laguna Beach Fire Department engine. File photo

By Breeana Greenberg, Special to the Independent

The Laguna Beach City Council voted Tuesday to acquire two South Laguna properties for future public use.

Laguna Beach entered escrow in early June to purchase the vacant Ti Amo restaurant and parking lot at 31727 and 31735 S. Coast Highway for $2.7 million. Escrow is set to close on Sept. 6 following the Council’s 3-2 vote (Councilmembers Toni Iseman and George Weiss dissented). 

No decision has been made on how the property will be used, however, the staff report outlines potential use as a public park, restrooms, parking lot, or replacement of the Fire Station 4. Council directed staff to conduct an environmental analysis of the former restaurant property as a potential site for a new fire station at a City Council meeting in June. The City partnered with Rincon Consultants to prepare an Initial Study of the potential environmental impacts of a fire station off of Coast Highway.

“We have bragged on our city website about having the oldest operational fire stations anywhere in Orange County, which is kind of an odd boast for the city,” Emergency & Disaster Preparedness Committee Chair Matt Lawson said. “That’s probably the highest fire risk city anywhere in Orange County, and maybe among the highest risk cities anywhere in California. So I think we need to move forward with this as aggressively as we can.”

“The one we have there now is simply not adequate for South Laguna and it’s not adequate for the city as a whole,” Lawson said.” It’s a disservice to our entire community. And certainly, it puts our firefighters at risk, and it puts our residents at risk.”

City staffers have looked at 14 possible locations for the new fire station, Mayor Bob Whalen said. 

“Staff is still saying to me that this is the best alternative that we have available to us at this point,” Whalen said.

Residents expressed their concern with potential noise, emissions, and decrease in property value with the construction of a fire station on Coast Highway.

Nicholas Bennett, owner of AhbA, worried that building the fire station across from his restaurant would affect the outdoor dining experience.

“Well, most of our dining is outside, you know, global pandemic set aside and that’s definitely not something that’s conducive to outdoor dining,” Bennett said. “I mean, noise and construction’s going to not only decimate my business, but also I know that some of the neighbors with businesses on this street as well are going to have issues with that also.”

Residents also noted the potential loss in revenue that a new restaurant at the Ti Amo site could offer.

“I do think everyone agrees that this developed site is not ideal for the fire station,” Laguna Beach resident Catherine Jurca said. “I joined my neighbors in expressing bewilderment at the rejection of eminent domain to acquire property for an improved fire station. Eminent domain is designed precisely for that purpose. And there is land right nearby that much better meets a fire station’s needs, and is underutilized, to say the least.”

The South Laguna Civic Association held a community forum over Zoom to gather input from residents on the Ti Amo site purchase. Greg O’Loughlin, president of the South Laguna Civic Association explained that the organization wants the acquisition process to include more community voices. 

“If you or I were to build a house, one of the things that the city, I don’t know if they now require or they encouraged us to do, is first to have a community meeting to meet with your neighbors. You tell them what you’re going to do,” John Thomas, a board member of the South Laguna Civic Association said. “And then you go through the process. That would have been nice if they’d had done that. That’s what we did, because [the City] didn’t.”

“In fact, that’s what a lot of us were saying at the meeting last night, is the city needs to follow their own guidelines in these processes and they’re not,” Thomas said.

 Some residents have grown distrustful of the plan to replace Station 4 as the City worked on this for two years without involving the community, O’Loughlin said. 

“Everyone knows, it’s going to end up in someone’s backyard, we all know someone’s going to be upset, but let’s get together and make this all work for everybody,” O’Loughlin said

Councilmember Toni Iseman noted that this project may face litigation from residents and instead felt that the City should further investigate other locations for the fire station. 

“There are so many reasons why we shouldn’t go forward,” Iseman said. “Is there any question that there’s going to be litigation? We heard from one attorney by mail and we had one attorney testify and I think there’s a commitment in the neighborhood to make sure that this is not going to happen.”

Whalen highlighted that the City’s environmental study concluded that all the significant environmental impacts could be mitigated. 

“I’m confident that that’s a well reasoned and sound document based on the advice that we’re getting from our city attorney and our staff, he said.”

Once escrow closes, City Council will discuss options for the properties’ use. The sites will be further evaluated for severe environmental impacts based on the chosen project.

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  1. Weird. The city staff looked at 14 locations without community (SLCA) input? Has the staff given up on getting community input on projects or are they waiting for someone in a leadership position to tell them to get community input?

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