Council Mulls Over Caltrans’ Laguna Canyon Road Project

Bottlebrush trees line the median on Laguna Canyon Road. Clara Beard/LB Indy

By Tasmin McGill, Guest Contributor

Laguna Beach City Council discussed the upcoming Laguna Canyon Road median landscape project during its regular meeting April 18. 

Initially approved by the city council in 2018, the project was then submitted to the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) for approval. However, the project was delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic – and, at the end of 2020, the Caltrans encroachment permit that was granted for the modifications had expired.

City councilmembers unanimously agreed to revive the project and resubmit the plan to Caltrans in 2022, allocating $400,000 towards implementing the proposed changes. 

Despite the city of Laguna Beach’s approval from Caltrans to carry out the median landscaping makeover, the choice of plants was met with ire by some residents, who were concerned about what species of plants would replace the current bottle brush trees. 

The Caltrans landscape proposal recommended Catalina cherry and western redbud trees would replace the bottle brush. The two species are native to California but not native to Laguna Beach, and some comments were raised about the suitability of the species of trees.

“I see these trees as being a huge maintenance issue for public works,” Mayor Bob Whalen said. “Having both all those shrubs and other plants in that median strip along with the trees would seem to be a lot of maintenance and also a lot of water.”

Laguna resident Helen Shirley stated her concerns about the potential placement of Catalina cherry trees in the Canyon. 

“When they’re mature, they have blackberries and are valued by wildlife, which means that wildlife will go to the median eat and possibly get hit by a car. At the same time, we have a lot of vermin out here already– do we need more?” Shirley said. “The fruit stains on concrete, so be careful where you place (the tree). I’m going to have cherry stains all over my car because I don’t have covered parking.”

Laguna Beach City Manager Shohreh Dupuis said Caltrans is not flexible on this issue.

“They actually would like to see no trees in (the median),” Dupuis said. “This is a huge compromise on Caltrans’ side to allow these two species of trees to exist on the median.”

The original plan envisioned the Canyon medians sprinkled with a variety of colorful shrubbery and oak and sycamore trees framing the road.

“The idea was that we would have this canyon effect with large over branching trees on the sides,” Assistant Director of Public Works Thomas Perez said during the meeting. “When Caltrans let us know that they would approve those two tree types, we looked at that with our landscape architect, and we just felt that having that diverse tree rather than just putting one tree throughout would add a good aesthetic value.”

Residents and community members also discussed the state of the curbs and how that will pose a problem in the future.

“The curb around those medians is very low in many places and that’s because, over the years, they’ve paved more and more asphalt, reducing the height of the curb, erasing the thickness of the street and at some point, that’s going to have to be fixed, and when that’s fixed, it’s going to disturb the planting that you’re discussing,” Laguna resident Ann Christoph said.

According to Perez, addressing the issue of the deteriorating curbs is doable. However, it comes with an additional $150,000 to $200,000, on top of the $400,000 already allocated. 

“It is feasible depending on the final design and the location of the trees. There may be some need to remove some of the ground cover we put in, but that, again, would just be based on whatever design came up in the future,” Perez said.

Following the open comment session, the city councilmembers voted unanimously to amend the proposal and take it back to Caltrans, inquiring about the use of elderberry and toyon trees, native to Laguna, instead of the Catalina cherry and western redbud options for Laguna Canyon Road. 

However, should Caltrans deny the council’s request, the project will go out for bid as originally planned, with construction starting as early as September. 

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  1. Ironic isn’t it, that Caltrans will embrace a highway median makeover and Council can find the money for landscape replacement with edible fruit trees, but can’t find the money, incentive, or safety priority for traffic calming and bike lanes. They even collaborate on the extra $200k for an esthetic curb nose-job. We have all been here before, see some early LCR improvements in a chronology here:

    Once again we find vegetarian berry bushes and esthetics for the automobile, but none for a multi-use pathway for pedestrians from Canyon Acres Drive. No-way Jose, our city council proceedings even failed to record a public petition on the matter in Public Comment.


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