Common Sense

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Loopholes for Changing Downtown

By Michèle Monda

Property rights is one of my core beliefs. You should be able to do with your property what you wish, as long as it doesn’t interfere with the clear enjoyment of your neighbors to have the same right. That means if you can’t see my deck, you should not be able to block my building one if it doesn’t encroach on you. I am for development and am excited about upgrading our buildings around town and restoring historic grand old dames like the Hotel Laguna and hopefully the movie theatre.

But I draw the line with an owner’s right to do what he wants if it is going to dramatically change the neighborhood. I am quite concerned with what is potentially happening to our city’s “village feel” with the new Downtown Specific Plan (DSP) and a current loophole called a “Corporate Development Agreement.” This vehicle, legal under our General Plan, would allow a developer to create an “overlay zone” which then exempts them from General Plan guidelines and zoning regulations. The City Council needs only to approve a finding that there is some benefit to the general public, like public art, maintaining a park, beach access, or parking. Then the developer can pretty much do what they want. So, no Planning Commission, Design Review Board or city approval. Six current development projects are looking to be reviewed under this “CDA”—what are we going to get for a pass on regulations? City staff seemingly is directed to accommodate development—will they adequately consider the needs of the residents? Will our developer-friendly City Council listen to residents’ input?

There’s another loophole I find disturbing—the parking requirement. The new DSP has thrown out the current parking requirements for a business: four spaces per 1,000 square feet for retail, 10 per 1,000 square feet for restaurants. The new plan specifies a blended number of three per 1,000 square feet for any business. Do you see downtown turning into a food court under this? I do. So much for revitalizing and supporting the merchants. Laguna already has more bars and restaurants per capita than most OC cities. This further intensifies the use of the land—packing more people into our town.

Also, if you renovate an historic building (think Hotel Laguna) with few or no parking requirements, you get to grandfather them in. City Council can approve up to a 70 percent parking exemption for historic buildings. So potentially, there would be no parking requirements. What to do with the parking you have? You can, let’s say, “gift” them for the public benefit. And now you’re using the Corporate Development Agreement and get to do what you want. Before the Skyloft building was renovated, the requirement was 170 spots. That went away after it was renovated by using the 70 percent exemption and grandfathered spots. They are now required to have zero parking spots. So, where does everyone park? The Glenneyre structure no doubt, further decreasing the available parking for residents and other merchants. I love the Skyloft development and am happy it was done. But I think the parking issue should have been addressed. Did you know that if a merchant doesn’t have the spaces, they can pay a low “parking-in-lieu” fee of $20,000 per spot? Yet the city claimed in 2017, two years ago, that building a new parking spot in town would cost a minimum of $100,000.

The most troubling change to our DSP is the idea of combining lots and developing the space as one giant building. If this goes through, someone could buy up lots on Ocean Avenue and turn it into a huge building. That street is one of the most charming streets in Laguna, specifically because of its eclectic and different types of buildings created over years of different owners and styles. Yes, some need to be renovated and cleaned up, but to build a monolith there would certainly change the character of the street. Height restrictions are changed. They want to build three-story buildings in downtown. Will that be compatible with the current village feel?

After hearing this I am concerned. I want to echo Ann Christoph’s plea in her Sept. 13 column. We need to come together. What our town is going to look like in the future is a nonpartisan issue. We need to work together—the forward thinkers, the preservationists, the obstructionists. I think everyone is happy with revitalizing and “making better” what we have in Laguna. There doesn’t need to be a wholesale destruction of the very soul of what Laguna is and why we all moved here—a small town where you know your neighbors and feel a part of something really special.

Michèle Monda has lived in Laguna Beach for 15 years with her husband, Emil, and three sons. She is secretary of Laguna Beach Republicans and treasurer of Laguna Beach Sister Cities.








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  1. And another “column” from political activist Michelle Monda. What is it about the Indy that publishes these fact-free creeds in a way that purports truth? Between this and Anne Christoph’s last few diatribes, maybe this section should be labeled Town Liar instead of Town Crier?

    Michelle, you begin your column (politicized statement) with an ode to property rights. You should know all about that issue. You built a Macmansion in South Laguna as part of a huge lot with 2 other homeowners and installed a gate to keep others out. I guess that’s the part of the “small town where you know your neighbors” you can associate with? Hmm…. I’m sure you were torn between donating it as a park for children, open space or maybe a garden? Anne, are you listening? Toni?

    You’re also very concerned with the Downtown Specific Plan? You seem to exert yourself like a retail expert and planning genius when in reality you’re neither. Right? You actually show how visionless you are by announcing your fears of restaurants taking over and rendering the Downtown a food court. That kind of says it all doesn’t it? Instead of seeing an incredible dining experience emerge with outdoor seating and a pedestrian-friendly downtown, you conjure up the basement of a mall with cinnamon-dusted pretzels and hot dogs. Sorry, the sophisticated residents want fine dining and world-class shopping. You’re hardly the arbiter for either so I can understand your hesitations. You offer up a healthy dose of fearmongering but no solutions to fix our decrepit retail options in town. It’s no wonder that it’s never frequented by residents and always full of low-end tourists and polyester Betties from Village Laguna. Shop downtown lately, Michelle?BTW, none of us drive to restaurants anymore. There’s this new service called ride-sharing (Uber/Lyft) Look it up. It’s how people get to restaurants these days.

    You continue by misstating facts about the proposed height restrictions in the downtown and bring up Ocean Ave. Would that be because I own a building on Ocean and have clearly stated that I’d like to build a small one-bedroom apartment for my wife and I to live in upstairs? It is on a part of Ocean that might be approved for an extra 12 feet. Hardly the skyscraper you’d like to convince everyone it will be. Afterall, not everyone is like you and can afford to live the high-life with any visible signs of income. There are those of us who’d like to have a live-work space and btw all of the height additions are for residential only. Please stop the fear tactics about monoliths changing the character of the street and somehow incompatible with the current village feel. No one is proposing changing the small and quaint village atmosphere, we just want it more vibrant and cultured.

    You finish with a call for unity. Haha!! You and unity? You’re a ruthless and polarizing political operative that is far from the unifying type. Suddenly you’re going to bring together the “forward thinkers, the preservationists, the obstructionists” whilst removing partisanship to prevent the wholesale destruction of the very soul of what Laguna is” Sure you are!

    Michelle, please spare us your self absorbed BS! The residents of Laguna deserve better than you.

  2. Hi Michelle! There will be NO special treatment and we will not be skipping any steps or meetings. We will be held to the same standard as any other developer. I kindly ask that you read the actual MOU from the city website in its entirety and completely vet anything you share as fact. I would be happy to schedule you a follow-up meeting with our team to further clarify and address any of your questions or concerns.

  3. Here is the most troubling part of this Downtown Specific Plan. After the MIG Pop-ups, hundreds of thousands $pent in consultant fees and ten years writing this DSP, our Planning Commission has produced a 80MB unfinished document in 169 pages. A keyword search of those pages show the emphasis and care given to our mobility plan:

    Walking: 3
    Bicycles: 5
    Pedestrians: 28
    Trolley: 17
    Parking Structure: 13
    Shuttle: 4
    Rail: 0
    Complete Streets Policy: 0
    Enhanced Mobility and Complete Streets Transition Plan: 0
    Parking: 411

    Our best and brightest planners still believe Laguna can park 6-million tourists in 3000 parking spaces, or 6000, or 12,000. Sadly there is no Common Sense in our DSP only Loopholes big enough for a parking structure. Solutions to preserving Laguna’s character density and scale while solving traffic congestion and erosion is found in the Mobility Plan, our developers and city planners should adopt one first, not an after-thought last.

  4. The first reply here speaks directly to the serious bullying behavior of our newest elected official. It is exactly why our city council agreed we so desperately needed to adopt a civility and decorum policy for public officials during meetings and in all other communications. Neither Michele Monda nor Ann Christophe’s Indy articles mentioned Councilman Blake ( he says he only responds when publicly disparaged) yet he felt so threatened by them voicing their personal viewpoints and concerns on city issues that he verbally attacked their personal lifestyles, character, integrity and called them town liars. This is beyond intimidation and bullying folks. This is a clear cut personal attack and government official harassment of two well-respected residents in our city. It’s not acceptable. Taxpayers are entitled to share their views on our city government body, operations and business. After all, we pay for it. The City must put a stop to this bullying and harassment by a government official/employee of our city. Our town doesn’t want to be known for its bullying nor labeled as uncivil. And our prestigious city reputation is suffering as well and CC Dicterow’s Kindness USA city promotion is becoming the butt of local jokes. Let the Mayor, MPT and CC members Kempf and Iseman, as well as the city manager and the city attorney know you want this stopped. Enforce the civility policy! As CC Sue Kempf says “let’s reset and get back to where we were.” Thanks to Sue and our other city council members for showing us how respectable public officials behave.

    Thanks Les for the information you supplied. And Hasty for your input.

  5. Here comes political bully MJ Abraham to the rescue!! Please spare us the “woe is me” posts. Everyone in town knows exactly what you’re you’re all about. I love how you bring up Anne and Michelle’s “columns” in this current issue but neglect to mention the others. How about Michelle’s posts over the weekend on Nextdoor. Oh, maybe those don’t count? You lament our town not wanting to be being “known for its bullying nor being labeled as uncivil” Well, we all know who brought DC and Sacramento style dirty politics to Laguna. You did! You and Michael Morris launched the most despicable attacks on Steve Dicterow in 2016. In 2018 both of you came out slinging mud again and now in 2019, it’s my turn. The only problem is your mud isn’t sticking. Keep peddling your false narratives while slandering and libeling me and I’ll keep working for my constituents. We both know we wouldn’t be having this conversation if the votes were going your way. MJ, your brand of political extremism has exited Laguna. You, Village Laguna and the rest of the activists in this town have lost your stranglehold on Laguna and it’s not coming back. My election is just the beginning! So please, keep wishing for a “reset” back to the days when hippies ran this town with an iron fist and tortured the residents with Design Review and restrictive policies riddled with obstruction. Your attempts at suppressing me and my constituents through a censor and threats of a recall are meaningless and you know it. I was elected by the people and ONLY the people who elected me have any influence on me whatsoever.

  6. Peter, sadly your response speaks volumes and proved my point. It’s apparent to me that you degrade and bully people because it makes you feel powerful. You cannot accept anyone who disagrees with you or does not accept your brash behavior as normal. And you have actually convinced yourself that normal and logical successful Laguna Beach residents need you to be a town bully on their behalf. It’s simply not true. While they may want you to assist in their agendas, my guess is that most have too much intelligence and class to support such uncivil behavior. I believe it’s why so few locals promote or defend you, thus your obsessive need to monitor various social media sites 24/7. No one wants to be connected to a self-admitted bully Peter which is the brand you have promoted for yourself. Why not spend your time listening and learning from your co-council members on how to become a decent city leader worthy of respect. You apparently have time on your hands. I believe in miracles.

  7. MJ, the only miracle you believe in is that you’ll get one of your left-wing extremist candidates elected. Until then, keep slinging mud and I’ll keep governing. BTW, if you have your finger on the pulse of the local residents and know that I don’t have their support, why don’t you start a recall? Surely you can round up some of the “normal, logical and successful, residents who have “too much intelligence and class” to support my “uncivil behavior?


  8. MJA,

    It’s true that Mr. Blake isn’t going to win any etiquette contest any time soon, but if I recall he was very upfront about that during the campaign. I can’t see that Mr. Blake has been anything other than what he presented himself to be and has stuck unfailing to his principles during his short tenure in city government.
    You mention Sue Kempf as showing how “respectable public officials behave.”
    I couldn’t disagree more. Ms. Kempf has repeatedly used her office to do favors for friends and then lied about her motivations when confronted. This is the textbook definition of corruption. I can’t tell you how many times in the last 8 months I’ve heard someone going before the council say, “….but we’re not worried about it. We’re friends with Sue Kempf.”
    Ms. Kempf also used her position on the planning commission to advocate for Greg Pfost to be brought to Laguna Beach, but neglected to mention that Mr. Pfost was under city-wide investigation at the time of her recommendation. Why? Mr Pfost and Ms. Kempf became friends while working on the view ordinance committee. As I say, Ms. Kempf see it as her right to use government to do favors for friends.
    Mr. Blake on the other hand sticks to his principles. Sometimes that means he’s with you, sometimes it means he isn’t.
    Want proof? Recently Mr. Blake voted WITH Village Laguna regarding Bluebird Farms. I think it’s fair to say he despises that group, but there he was sticking with what he believes in.
    Unfortunately Ms. Kempf is tethered to no such principles or beliefs. She’s a weather vane to the well-connected and will never oppose them (just watch her voting record!). I get the strong feeling that Mr. Blake wouldn’t hesitate to oppose anyone if they weren’t aligned with the principles he ran on. Say what you like, but Peter Blake is true to his beliefs.
    You may decide for yourself which is a more reliable public servant: A rookie councilman who’s rough around the edges but true to his beliefs, or a third place cocktail-set finisher who needed to be pushed across the finish line by a big money PAC that slimed her opponents. The sad truth is that Ms. Kempf sees her office as nothing more than a vehicle to do favors for her well-connected friends. Mr. Blake on the other hand is CLEARLY not there to do anyone any favors or cultivate any “important” friends. If you can’t respect that, I don’t know what to tell you.

  9. Rick, thanks for the information on CC Kempf. It sounds like you have knowledge and experiences I don’t have. Thanks for enlightening me and exposing such behavior. I will check it out and take more of an interest in this new CC members actions. Re: Peter Blake – I do have personal experience with Blake and I completely disagree with your assessment. Most people I speak with ( two residents just today!) that supported or voted for Blake are shocked at the way he is behaving and verbally abusing locals now that he is in office. Campaign “I’ll kick butt and take names” blabber is one thing but a sitting city public official should be respectful of their constituents and their feedback. And they should remember that they represent all residents not just the chosen few who ponies up the money to buy their council seat. Council members should not attack people personally and professionally. Period. He’s a complete embarrassment to our city. And one vote in favor of an agenda item that he and a village laguna speaker see eye-to-eye on doesn’t mean anything other than it’s a subject that means nothing to his bosses; the developers who own him. His aggressive and destructive public official behavior is not acceptable to me. I respect your decision to support him but I do not. I predict he will crash and burn if he continues his intimidation and bullying. Best, MJ

  10. Peter Blake- a recall action or not, residents who voted for a change are finding that the change they supported was a big mistake. It’s no secret that PAC money advertising and influence is how you, an unknown who raised very little campaign funds from private public supporters, got elected. And its clear that you are merely a pawn for developers and that you are not fiscally conservative at all. Your excessive spending of taxpayer $ to date clearly proves this. How many more big city staff raises are you going to promote? And how many development projects are you going to push down residents throats for you and their benefits? As for the liberal extremist label your obsessed with pinning on anyone who disagrees with you…you have no idea who I vote for or voted for in the last local election other than the very intelligent and sound qualified candidate Judie Mancuso and you definitely shared your support of her. Again, try listening and learning about governing and leadership from your co-council members. Your aggressive bully and intimidation tactics only show us how lucky we are to have other balanced city officials worthy of representing us.

  11. MJ Abraham, which residents are finding that voting for me was a big mistake? You and the writer of this “column”? Keep claiming that my seat was bought. It suits you to continue your bullshit claims even though you’re smart enough to know that it isn’t true. I have your email early on in my campaign where you go on and on about the quality of my website and campaign materials. I was the first candidate to actually list issues on my ads. I went up against Village Laguna and Friendship Shelter and still won. The two most powerful groups in town couldn’t keep me from getting elected. A PAC made up of developers and some ads and flyers were more powerful than a group that’s run Laguna for 50 years? Who are you kidding? Unknown? I worked in the busiest restaurant in town from 1990-95 (Romeo Cuccina) I’ve had the best contemporary gallery in Laguna since it opened in 1993. I started Gallery Row and the First Thursdays Art Walk. I’ve been involved in the local business community since then. I’ve made friends with most of the residents of our community. All this while you were in Riverside running a leftist organization (Riverside City College Center for Social Justice & Civil Liberties) MJ, somehow your claims just don’t add up.

    I’m not fiscally conservative because I awarded our City Manager a 2.5 raise as he heads into retirement? Because I gave our Assistant City Manager a raise to keep her from being poached from Huntington Beach who subsequently hired a City Manager with 20 years less experience than Shohreh? Where were you and the author of this “column” last week when the decision was being made to eliminate trolley routes that were costing Laguna hundreds of thousands of dollars? Your absence was noticed when the sewer building (Digestor) was up for a renovation in the 7 figure range. I guess there wasn’t enough political collateral for an activist like you to remain in the Council Chambers past your drinking time?

    Please advise on the development projects I’ve voted for where I benefit? Another lie? You’re really on a roll these days, aren’t you?

    As far as Judie Mancuso, I consider her a friend and am currently working with her on an agenda bill to remove single-use plastics from our beaches. It was unfortunate that she didn’t win and instead we got Toni, a 20-year incumbent with cognitive issues who’s nothing more than a mouthpiece for Village Laguna. Had tired Anne Christoph not launched a failing bid and had consummate bureaucrat Rob Zur Schmiede removed his name from the ballot, she would have won and I’d proudly be serving with her.

    Finally, your incessant attacks on me show just how effective my “aggressive bully and intimidation tactics” have been in securing the votes that benefit the silent majority in Laguna who have yearned for a voice for 50 years. I’m not about to stop so get used to it!

  12. MJA,

    When Greg Pfost was Deputy Community Development Director at the city of Rancho Palos Verdes he failed to properly do his job regarding the Green Hills Memorial Park mausoleum. The city investigated Mr Pfost and his colleagues for their mistakes throughout the planning process.
    Mr. Pfost’s colleague was placed on administrative leave and ultimately resigned when the investigation was completed. Mr. Pfost avoided all that by parachuting into Laguna Beach. How? He’d been working with our now Councilwoman Sue Kempf on the view restoration committee, so he had connections here.

    Here’s the news story at the time:

    Here’s the investigative report (you’ll need to copy and paste):….pdf

    Mr. Pfost is mentioned 124 times in the report. Investigators conclude he failed to do his duties.

    Ms. Kempf was probably glad to get such a malleable personality at the city, and I’m sure Mr. Pfost was glad to salvage his career. However, in doing this favor for her friends she failed to inform the public that her candidate of choice was under city-wide investigation at the time of her recommendation (Heck, she didn’t even wait for the investigation to conclude before bringing him to Laguna!)

    It’s very likely that in the future Mr. Blake and Ms. Kempf will both vote with the big developers, but Mr. Blake will do it because it’s something he whole-heartedly believes in. Ms. Kempf will do it because she’s a weather vane who does the bidding of her well-connected friends.

    Unfortunately, Mr.Blake has become a lightning rod while Ms. Kempf manages to slither under the radar. For me, using your office as a vehicle to do favors for your friends is a far greater risk to the city and community than a couple of heated arguments and violations of decorum from a passionate freshman councilman.

  13. Mr. Blaine, I find your information to be totally incorrect! Sue Kempf was NOT on the City Council and had NO influence on Mr. Post being hired to the City of Laguna Beach.While I find Sue Kempf to be an excellent Council Person, I also find that the MIS-INFORMATION smells of Toni Iseman!
    Greg Post has been an excellent Planning Director for the City of Laguna Beach and has an excellent staff! You should be careful about slandering someone and attacking others for political gain.
    It’s very clear what you are up to. SHAME ON YOU!
    Past Mayor and City Council Member, Kelly Boyd

  14. Rick Blaine- I can’t believe everyone fell for the Rick Blaine name- clearly this is someone else. Casablanca/Laguna Beach ????

  15. Mr. Blaine,
    A couple of facts will aid your understanding.
    I served as chairman of the View Restoration Ordinance drafting committee. Our research led us to two ordinances that had been litigated, and which had been upheld by California Courts of Appeal. These ordinances were from Rancho Paulo’s Verdes, and from Tiburon.
    As part of our due diligence, we arranged for Sue Kempf and two other committee members to go to Palos Verdes and meet with people involved in administering their view ordinance. On March 7, 2013 our members met at Palos Verdes with Joel Rojas, two city employees under Mr. Rojas’ supervision and a former mayor of RPV. The purpose of the visit was to assess the operation of RPV’s ordinance from the position of their staff and from people who had served as elected officials. This was our only meeting at RPV. Greg Pfost did not attend this meeting, or any other meeting of the committee.
    Our committee was assisted by Carolyn Martin and John Montgomery from Laguna’s city staff. I was involved with every aspect of the Committee’s work. We never worked or consulted with Greg Pfost in researching, drafting or producing the Ordinance.
    As for Susan Kempf, it was my good fortune to work with her on the View Restoration Ordinance. She worked diligently and tirelessly. In addition to our monthly public hearings, we visited every household to which we were invited to view issues relating to vegetation (privacy preservation and view blockage.) Susan Kempf made every visit. She was a diligent and informed planning commissioner.
    Susan Kempf is a respectful, dedicated and studious City Council member. She works as hard as any Council Member I have observed. She puts in the time. She is always informed on the issues before her.
    That is what we ask of our elected officials, and that is what Sue Kempf gives to the City.


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