In a matter that has proved extraordinarily divisive to Emerald Bay residents since 2011, Laguna Beach’s City Council voted 3-1 on Tuesday to approve proposed road improvements at the gated community’s main entry, which do not include a controversial traffic signal as originally envisioned.
The Council approved specific design review and coastal development permits for the project with conditions and stipulated that a new coastal development permit would have to be obtained if a signal is proposed in the future.
Council member Toni Iseman dissented.
Council member Bob Whalen recused himself and left Council chambers since he works for a law firm that represents a governing board within Emerald Bay.
While the proposed improvements at the intersection of Shamrock Road and North Coast Highway are intended to improve safety and efficiency along with siphoning entering cars off Coast Highway, the project initially included a hotly protested Coast Highway traffic signal for the intersection.
City officials and staff began meeting with the Emerald Bay Community Association over the initial project in July 2011. In response to safety concerns raised by citizens, in March 2012 the Council agreed to pay $15,000 to hire an independent traffic engineering firm to review the proposal.
In the wake of the Fehr and Peers report, the council agreed to intersection improvements to relieve the daily traffic backup that occurs outside the gatehouse, but refused to green-light the installation of a traffic signal, which would require a coastal development permit. They also directed staff to work with EBCA to implement new gate procedures, install intersection improvements with no traffic signal, and monitor the intersection for a period of time.
The city holds jurisdiction over the 100-foot-wide right-of-way along Coast Highway that bisects Emerald Bay.
A number of the ECBA’s proposed improvements fall outside the city’s jurisdiction, such as moving the guardhouse north by 40 feet to improve queuing distance on Shamrock Road, and widening and reconfiguring the road to allow additional lanes, among other measures.
Improvements within city jurisdiction include reconfiguring Coast Highway by lengthening turn-lane pockets and the southbound acceleration lane as well as a adding a median with curb and gutter for the southbound protected left-turn pocket, the most controversial of the improvements. Other improvements include installation of three 33-foot light poles with 12-foot arched mast arms, chosen because they could not accommodate a future traffic signal.
Proponents including Caltrans and the Laguna Beach Chamber of Commerce cited safety as their motivation for supporting the project, while opponents questioned their premise. On the contrary, some contend the raised median will make the intersection more dangerous. And others expressed disbelief that the ECBA, formerly so keen on a traffic signal, had truly given it up.
“We have done everything that the Council has asked, that their planning folks have asked,” said Bill Hart, a director of the Emerald Bay Service District. He scoffed at the notion that the project served as a Trojan horse for a traffic light. “We’re out of that business and we intend to be out of that business,” he said.
Proponents made repeated efforts to quell skepticism.
“I assure you, we have no plans to put a signal at this location in Emerald Bay,” echoed Ryan Chamberlain, director of the local Caltrans district.
When Mayor Elizabeth Pearson questioned whether Caltrans needed the city’s approval for the project, Chamberlain admitted that Caltrans could pursue “other avenues” if necessary, but that the agency would prefer collaboration with city officials.
Still residents like Scott McMarter questioned any need to improve safety. “That is a very, very safe intersection,” he said, adding that during a meeting Hart had mentioned a “secret plan” to get a light installed. “I don’t trust them on any of this stuff,” he said.
Laguna Beach resident Mark Lewis, a civil and traffic engineer, said he mostly supported the project, with the exception of the median.
James Pinheiro, responsible for Caltrans operations and maintenance, explained that a visible raised median such as the one proposed, which calls for reflective markers, makes drivers more careful out of fear of damaging their vehicles while motorists take fewer pains to avoid areas demarcated solely by painted lines.
Though Chamberlain admitted that safety concerns at the intersection were not severe enough for Caltrans to undertake improvements at their own expense, agency officials found that the proposed improvements would increase safety or they wouldn’t have agreed to them.
Emerald Bay resident Patty Collison said the intersection “is much safer than similar intersections in the state” and suggested that the stacking at the entry could be improved by simply giving more workers transponders and relocating the school bus stop.
In fact, the project includes measures to speed entry at the main gate by providing entry passes to some workers and providing transponders to alternate gates for others.
“I don’t believe that this is going to make this intersection safe,” said Iseman in her dissent, arguing the improvements might actually erode safety and will disrupt traffic during the anticipated 45-day construction period.